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Working From Home Guide

Working From Home Guide

Before COVID-19 hit, the option of working from home was available to only 7 percent of the U.S. workforce, mostly highly paid white collar workers. That percentage has increased more than nine-fold to 66 percent of employees in the weeks since the pandemic barred everyone not designated an essential worker from going to their jobs. This abrupt change means that a lot of people accustomed to working in their offices are finding new ways of doing their jobs.

Working from home isn’t easy, even for those who have been doing it for years. There are distractions, from chores to pets, that you used to leave behind when you “went to work.” It’s also difficult to develop, and stick to, a new routine.

Collaborating with coworkers you’ve shared offices with for years is a challenge now that you’re no longer talking face to face. There are no more casual lunchroom conversations. Working from home can be lonely.

We’ve written this guide to help you successfully make the adjustment to working from home, whether you run a business or work for someone else. Here’s what you’ll learn:

  • What is working from home? This chapter will explain what working from home actually means, why it was already becoming more common even before the pandemic, and current trends and statistics.
  • Remote work vs working from home. There are some differences between remote work and working from home, and this chapter gives you a brief overview.
  • Advantages and disadvantages of working from home. Like everything else, there are upsides and downsides to working from home.
  • How to create an effective work-from-home policy. This chapter teaches employers how to set employee expectations, determine which positions are eligible to work from home, and decide on prudent security measures.
  • How to work from home successfully. This chapter gives employees tips on staying focused, establishing a routine, communicating with coworkers, and managing distractions. You’ll also learn how to set up a home office.
  • Best work-from-home software. Technology makes it possible to work from home. This chapter covers the software you’ll need to succeed.

Though this guide is intended for both managers and employees who are making the switch to working from home, there’s a lot here that can be valuable to work-from-home veterans, too. Whether you’re an employee, a manager, or a WFH vet, these tips can help you be more efficient and get more out of the experience.

What is working from home?

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the average American worker spent 4.35 hours per week, or 26.1 minutes each way, commuting to and from work. The commute in the notoriously congested Washington, D.C. metro area averages 43.6 minutes, one way. The productivity argument for working from home has gained a lot more traction now that “shelter in place” orders have limited the choices to working from home or not at all.

Working from home (WFH), also known as teleworking, remote working, or flexible workplace, has long been viewed as a benefit for a small percentage of employees. Many people think it’s an option made possible by the internet, but it’s actually been around for almost 50 years.

The history of working from home

The first work-from-home experiment involved 30 federal government workers in the 1970s, when the oil supply crisis resulted in long gas lines and expensive fuel. Farsighted employers considered ways to shorten commutes, such as building satellite offices instead of everyone commuting to headquarters, or eliminating commutes altogether. In the 1980s, JCPenney began hiring home-based call center workers.

Telecommuting grew after passage of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 prodded large businesses to address long commutes. In 1996, the federal government implemented the National Telecommuting Initiative to demonstrate its commitment to more teleworking opportunities.

Working from home today

Thanks to widespread high-speed internet access, video conferencing, and collaboration apps, a laptop is all an employee needs to do their job and stay in touch with colleagues.

Working from home today typically begins when employees set up a workspace in their homes where they can do their jobs — including everything from preparing presentations and reports to conducting phone interviews and developing software.

Many jobs lend themselves well to a work-from-home arrangement. Virtual assistants, for instance, communicate with their employers via communication apps to complete many of the duties an onsite administrative assistant would.

Well-trained customer service representatives were some of the original work-from-home employees. Now many companies use a browser-based interface that enables home-based customer service representatives to answer calls and troubleshoot problems via live chat.

Technology is rapidly expanding the jobs that can now be done from home. Lawyers and paralegals have access to online databases like Westlaw to look up cases, as well as electronic case management systems, for example.

Home offices vary. Employees who primarily work from home typically have a dedicated home office space in a spare room. Those who work from home occasionally often improvise, using whatever desk or table is available. They might also set up on their couch and use a coffee table, or create a standing desk.

Why work from home

Working from home has become more common in recent years as technology has improved and more employers recognize the moral value of trusting employees. Employees treasure the flexibility and work-life balance.

A Future of Work survey of managers found that 78 percent ranked telecommuting and flexible schedules as two of the most valuable benefits for retaining employees. More than half of employers provide their employees with the necessary devices for working remotely, while 36 percent facilitate working from home by using cloud-based file management tools.

Businesses and employees both see the benefits of working from home. Employees appreciate the hours they gain from not commuting, while employers recognize savings when they don’t have to provide dedicated office space. Studies have found that office desks are vacant 50–60 percent of the time.

Working from home gives employees time to attend to their health, like exercising before or after work, instead of sitting in traffic. Employees appreciate the flexibility that working from home gives them; they can pick up their child from school, go grocery shopping, or start a load of laundry between client calls. The money they save on commuting costs is basically a raise that costs the company nothing.

Work-from-home trends

While COVID-19 has accelerated the adoption of working from home, it was already on the rise. From 2005 to 2018, the number of employees who regularly work from home grew 173 percent.

Employees increasingly want to work from home. The vast majority (80 percent) want to work from home at least some time, and 35 percent would leave their employer for another job if they could work from home full time.

Larger companies have long been more likely to offer employees the chance to work from home, but small businesses are increasingly allowing employees to work from home as well. Smaller businesses often look for remote employees for bookkeeping, human resources, marketing, web development, and information technology to reduce overhead.

Access to work-from-home opportunities varies by the type of position and the industry. Management, business, and financial employees have the greatest ability to work remotely, as do those who work for insurance carriers and professional services firms like advertising agencies and law firms. These tend to be knowledge workers who do most of their work on computers.

Five of the fastest growing work-from-home positions are therapists, virtual assistants, client services professionals, tutors, and state and local government workers. Some other common positions are teachers, writers, developers, analysts, sales representatives, and nurses.

Working from home is on the rise across a variety of occupations. The COVID-19 pandemic is showing employers that workers can be productive in a setting other than the office. It’s likely that working from home is here to stay for a lot more people.

Remote work vs working from home

The number of people working remotely increased 159 percent between 2008 and 2020. Many people use the terms “remote working” and “working from home” interchangeably for employees who don’t commute to work at the company offices, but remote work and working from home are not identical.

The two aren’t mutually exclusive, either. Someone who works from home can also work remotely, and vice versa, but both remote work and working from home are here to stay. Polling shows 80 percent of employees want to work from home, at least some of the time.

Here’s how remote work vs working from home stack up.

Working from home

Working from home is exactly what it sounds like: work that you do where you live, whether in a dedicated home office or at an improvised location, such as your kitchen table or out on the patio on a nice day.

Some people work from home because they’re caretakers of children or older relatives. Working from home lets them meet the needs of the people they’re responsible for while still doing their jobs.

Others work from home occasionally as a respite from the commute to a distant office. They can take care of personal responsibilities, like being home for their child when there’s an early school dismissal or letting in a repair person without taking a day off.

Working from home often describes a temporary situation, like what we’ve seen to comply with orders closing “non-essential” businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic, or in ordinary times when an employee needs to be at home for a specific reason that day. For example, an employee might opt to work from home when they need time without distraction to complete a big project.

Remote work

Remote work typically refers to an employee who mostly, or entirely, works outside the company’s established offices. Usually the employee lives too far from the company’s actual location to commute daily. The employee may, or may not, work from their home, but they primarily work at a location other than the company offices.

Unlike working from home, however, remote work can be a little bit more like going to a traditional workplace. For example, some remote employees work from coworking spaces. This requires them to be in a semi-public environment and travel to the coworking space, which means some kind of commute and casual dress code.

Another type of remote work is when employees who work from home leave for awhile to work at a coffee shop or other public space. This is a more relaxed environment than a coworking space, but it does require leaving the house.

There are the employees, like field sales representatives, who have been doing remote work for years. They’re the “road warriors” or digital nomads who use their laptops and cell phones to work from diners and airport lounges between sales calls.

While it’s fine to use remote work and working from home interchangeably, it’s important to note the subtle differences between them. Working from home typically describes a situation where someone doesn’t work in the office, either for a day or more regularly. Remote work is done away from the office, but not necessarily at home. Remote workers often live too far away from the company’s offices to commute on a daily basis.

Both remote work and working from home can be used to increase employee satisfaction and possibly decrease overhead.

Advantages and disadvantages of working from home

Working from home can be both a blessing and a curse for companies and employees alike. On the one hand, employers can reduce turnover by 25 percent, saving $10,000 per year, and reduce unscheduled absences by 63 percent. On the other hand, 22 percent of employees believe some people will abuse the privilege and get less work done.

But as telecommuting and remote work become easier and more economical, both companies and employees need to weigh the advantages and disadvantages to determine if it’s a good fit for them. While 35 percent of employees would quit their job if they were offered a job that allowed them to work from home full time, only 27 percent of companies offer this option.

As you’re weighing whether or not to implement a permanent work-from-home policy, here are some of the pros and cons for both employees and employers.

Pro: Employees save money and time

Probably the biggest advantage for employees who work from home is how much money and time they save by not commuting. An employee can save between $2,500 and $4,000 per year when they don’t have to travel, park, or buy food during the workday. (In Manhattan, a sandwich can cost $15.)

Employees who work from home have a lot more free time. Working remotely even half time saves an employee, on average, 11 work days per year they would have otherwise spent commuting. If an employee has a very long commute, that time can triple. The time not spent commuting is time they have for personal care and family, and they can still get their work done.

Remote employees also save money on their wardrobe. Instead of dressing up for the office and spending money on dry cleaning, they can work in casual (and machine washable) clothes, and save their professional wardrobe for meetings with clients.

Pro: Employees are more productive 

While some associates who work from home take naps (not that there’s anything wrong with napping) and binge-watch television, good employees tend to buckle down and manage their time well. Remote workers are often more productive, and less distracted, at home than they are at the office.

Workers who don’t spend hours commuting can start work earlier and manage their time to work when they are most productive. Employees who are at their best first thing in the morning can log in while they’re drinking coffee and get started on the big tasks for the day when most people are still commuting to the office.

Pro: Employers can boost green initiatives

In 2018, 28.2 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions came from transportation. Companies that allow working from home help reduce emissions, a significant green initiative that resonates with employees.

Additionally, the energy used to keep offices lighted, ventilated, and climate controlled is another significant source of greenhouse gas emissions. As more employees work from home, employers can reduce the size of offices, reducing emissions and rental costs.

Pro: Employees have flexibility

Many employees want to work from home so they have more time for their other responsibilities, like caring for children or an elderly relative, or simply getting their grocery shopping and household chores done. Working from home basically gives the employee the time they would have spent commuting to deal with the rest of their lives. Allowing remote employees to manage their time lets those who want to start earlier have more time in the late afternoon to do homework with their kids or drive an elderly relative to a medical appointment.

Perhaps the biggest single benefit of working from home is the flexibility it gives employees to attend to their own needs. They can schedule their regular dental checkup or just pop out to the grocery store to grab some things for dinner, instead of spending that time commuting.

Pro: Employers can draw from a larger talent pool

Companies with work-from-home or remote work policies aren’t restricted to the talent pool that’s within driving distance of their offices. Those companies can tap into talent from anywhere.

This is an immense advantage if you’re located where the unemployment rate is low. You can recruit and hire far from your headquarters. You can also diversify your workforce. A good work-from-home policy opens opportunities to talented people who might otherwise be unable to commute to your location.

Con: Employees may work too much

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in many companies abruptly allowing employees to work from home, often because the only alternative is to temporarily shut down entirely.

Many have found that employees are working longer days. One study found U.S. employees were logged on for an additional three hours per day compared to pre-COVID-19 shutdowns. While this might sound like a boon for employers, it risks a burned out team that’s less productive in the long run.

One reason for the long hours could be that employees want the boss to see they are still productive when they work from home. However, working too much leads to employees making mistakes or burning out, which defeats the purpose of allowing them to work in an environment of their choosing.

Con: The line between work and home gets blurry

One advantage of commuting to an office is that you have a well-defined boundary between work and home. Sure, an employee might check their email from their phone in the evening, but for the most part, they leave their work on their desk when they go home.

Working from home blurs that line. For remote employees, and particularly those living in a small space, their “office’’ might be a table in a corner with their laptop that’s always in their line of sight, even when they’re trying to relax. The employee never feels they are really done for the day.

The result too often is an employee who works harder than anybody expects, and is stressed out and less productive because they are burned out.

Con: Less face time, less teamwork

Employees working from home simply don’t have as much face time with their coworkers as they do when the team is at the same location every day.

One survey found that 22 percent of telecommuters felt isolated and missed the company of their team. Another 17 percent said their interpersonal relationships suffered because they didn’t have face-to-face interaction with their coworkers. It’s hard to read another person’s nonverbal cues when you’re not in the same room.

Loneliness increases stress, harming mental health in a way that can result in depression, anxiety, and sleep problems.

Con: Employees may have technology issues

Don’t assume employees will have all the tech tools at home they need to be successful. They may not have second monitors and higher definition webcams that we take for granted at the office.

There may also be issues with the employee’s internet connection at home. During the COVID-19 pandemic, broadband internet service providers saw a 27 percent surge in core network traffic. In dense residential areas, these traffic spikes can strain the networks and cause connections to slow down.

Con: Employers may think employees are slacking

When an employee working in the office doesn’t answer a call or email right away, we assume they are in a meeting or otherwise busy. When an employee who works from home doesn’t answer the phone on the first ring, or doesn’t answer an email for an hour, coworkers and managers wonder if the employee is really working or just slacking off.

For every employee who slacks off while working from home, there are 10 who put in extra time at night. People who primarily work from home have the same engagement rate as the overall employee population, which hovers at 30 percent. Engagement has little to do with whether the person works from home or at the office, and far more to do with opportunities for professional development and the quality of their relationships with coworkers.

Working from home has its advantages and disadvantages, both of which are important as you explore allowing your team to work from home. Carefully consider whether the pros outweigh the cons for your company, and how your employees will adapt and perform if the situation is permanent.

How to create an effective work-from-home policy

Though the option to work from home has long been a coveted employee benefit, just 7 percent of employees enjoyed this benefit prior to the coronavirus pandemic.

The pandemic led to “shelter in place” orders that effectively forced companies to choose between shutting down entirely or shifting their teams to working from home. In the space of just a few weeks, 67 percent of companies began allowing employees to work from home. Millions of employees got a laptop, instructions on how to log in, and not much else from their employers.

Fewer than half of companies have work-from-home policies in place for their newly remote workers. The result is confusion and frustration as employees try to determine what’s expected of them. Work-from-home policies guide both companies and employees for the long term. Post-pandemic, employees may want to continue working from home occasionally, and a well-considered policy can help foster that.

What is a work-from-home policy?

A work-from-home policy defines what’s expected of both the employer and the employee when employees work from home. It covers the needed company-issued equipment and clarifies what positions are eligible to work from home, how to request that benefit, and how it gets approved.

The purpose of setting up this policy, like any other workplace policy, is to provide employees with what they need to successfully work from home. A good policy mitigates the disadvantages of working from home while making this option available to as many employees as practical.

How to set expectations for employees

Everyone who works from home will need to know what’s expected of them. When you create your work-from-home policy guidelines, make clear how many hours employees should put in, the communication apps they need to use, and how often they must check in.

Additionally, tell employees about mandatory meetings that they will have to attend. For example, you might set up a Monday morning check-in video call with your remote team to clarify the goals for that week.

The policy should specify the output you expect from employees who work from home. This should correlate with what the employees already produce, like the number of contracts a paralegal usually drafts per day when working in the office. A work-from-home policy should specify the technology employees will need to be trained to use, such as video conferencing and collaboration applications.

Make clear which expenses — such as upgrading home internet connections for employees — you’ll cover, so that employees can include them on their monthly expense reports.

Determining work-from-home eligibility

Not every employee is a good candidate to work from home. For starters, there are some occupations that require you to be in a physical location, like on the manufacturing floor. Others work in teams that require a higher degree of team collaboration than possible when they work from home. Some employees might handle sensitive information, raising cybersecurity and data privacy concerns if they work from home.

Finally, there’s also the question of how suitable the employee’s home environment is for work. How quiet is their home? If their job requires them to be on a lot of conference calls, they’ll need a space where they can be on these calls without being interrupted and, if they’re dealing with sensitive information, overheard.

Work-from-home security

Cybersecurity and data privacy are bigger concerns when employees work from home. All organizations need to institute security measures to protect both employees working from home and the company from potential data breaches.

A company’s virtual private network (VPN) can give users a false sense of security. Even if a VPN is installed, hackers can still manipulate it if there’s already malware on the home network. Consider how to protect all the data transmitted using security tools besides VPNs, like endpoint security software.

Secure forms for internal data collection, like forms created with JotForm, add an important layer of protection. For example, an employee might collect customer payment information during a video conference. That information needs to be encrypted so that the company complies with the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI-DSS).

The importance of trust for successful remote workers

If working from home is new to you and your employees, you may wonder if they’re actually working. It’s tempting to install software on their company-issued devices to monitor them, or require them to check in repeatedly, but micromanaging often backfires.

It’s much better to build trust by setting clear expectations for your employees and giving them the autonomy to get their work done when they work from home. Tell employees how you want them to communicate their progress on different projects, like an end-of-the week email or a one-on-one call on Monday morning, and then trust them to do so.

Focus on the employee’s work product, not necessarily how much time they’re spending in front of their computer. Understand that employees who work from home will need to attend to other responsibilities. But if they’re still doing their work well, it shouldn’t matter if they’re parked in their chair from 9 to 5 with a lunch break at noon.

Establishing a work-from-home schedule

Remote employees still need normal working hours so that, for example, they’re available for meetings or to answer questions.

A work-from-home schedule will keep you on the right side of the U.S. Department of Labor. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) requires you to pay overtime if nonexempt employees work more than 40 hours per week. If your hourly employees are working from home, this can add up quickly.

Employees who work from home tend to work more hours, not fewer, than those working at the office. A work-from-home schedule gives them clear guidelines so they know when they are really off work. This is important for avoiding burnout.

Consider letting your employees guide some of their schedules. For example, they can be available for calls between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., and have a hard stop on their workday at 5 p.m.

The post-COVID-19 WFH world

If you find that employees successfully complete their work while working from home during the pandemic, you may want to consider making the policy permanent. You can ease into this by allowing employees to work from home on specified days of the week or allowing employees to telecommute one or two days of their choosing.

You could also create a policy allowing them to work from home as needed, like on school holidays when their kids are home or when they’re not feeling well enough to come into the office but aren’t sick enough to justify taking a day off.

Ultimately, a good work-from-home policy will help both you and your employees succeed when they’re not in the office. Be thorough, and use the policy to build trust with your employees by setting expectations. Make sure there are security protections so that your data isn’t compromised, and help them establish working hours. This will be beneficial for everyone involved.

How to work from home successfully

Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, 42 percent of Americans have begun working from home. And now that they’ve gotten a taste of it, 24 percent say they want to keep working from home, either entirely or more often. Sixty percent of them say they’re just as productive — or even more productive — working from home.

But for those who are struggling to work from home successfully, or once the novelty wears off, it can be difficult to maintain the same level of productivity. Whether it’s a stack of dishes begging to be washed or difficulty collaborating with teammates, here are some tips for making the most out of working from home.

Set up for work-from-home success

Staying focused is a challenge when you’re working from home. Chores, pets, and other distractions abound. That’s why it’s so important to put in place a framework that will boost your productivity.

A basic way to do this is to make an action plan every day, separate from your list of projects. This is where you drill down on what you will accomplish just this one day. Break your big projects into discrete tasks you can do in daily increments. That way, you know what to work on every day and why it matters.

Build rewards into your daily action plan to make tasks more enjoyable and help you get them done faster. For example, if you have a tedious task on your list, “reward” yourself with your favorite coffee once you’ve completed it.

Establish work hours

Flexibility is one of the biggest perks of working from home, but it’s also one of the biggest pitfalls. Your employer’s work-from-home policy may require you to be available for certain hours of the day. But if not, or if those hours your employer specifies aren’t enough, you’ll need to establish work hours to stay productive.

One tip for establishing work hours is to consider when you’re at your most productive. For example, if you’re a morning person, you might start your workday at 7 a.m., then work until lunch and take a long break.

Also consider your other responsibilities. If you have children at home, your work-from-home hours need to accommodate their schedules. You might start your workday after you’ve gotten them on the school bus, then take a long break when they get home.

Maintain a work-from-home schedule

Set a work-from-home schedule that details what you do during working hours, including your start time, breaks, and when you end your workday. It helps to establish rituals that signal the beginning and the end of the workday.

For example, your workday startup and workday shut down routine can involve simple but necessary tasks, such as reviewing your calendar, responding to email and other communications, and making your preliminary list for the next day.

Start your workday at a set time, just as you would if you were going to the office. You don’t need to wear office attire, but dress in a way that signals you’re working. This can start another ritual, of dressing for work but also changing into casual clothes when you’re done for the day.

As you head to your work-from-home space, tell everyone you live with that you are at work and shouldn’t be interrupted unless it’s important.

Leverage remote communication tools

Collaborating on projects and staying connected with coworkers is what makes teams effective, but you can’t pop over to a coworker’s desk to ask for a second opinion on that client presentation when you’re working from home. Email is often clunky, and you don’t know when someone will read your message.

Fortunately, high-speed internet connections make this a bit easier with tools like Slack, which let you ping a coworker with a question or join a water cooler-type channel to discuss the latest binge-worthy streaming show.

Video conferencing software makes meetings far more interactive than telephone conferences. You don’t have to play “guess the voice” when you can see your coworkers’ faces. Some software, like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Google Meet, allow you to run presentations and share your screens.

Forms are a much more efficient way to collect end-of-the-day (or week) reports than email. Forms also are more efficient for requesting office supplies or IT help. Many employers use remote life surveys to see how their employees are adjusting to working from home.

Avoid distractions at work

Working from home comes with its own set of distractions: household chores, family members, and the temptation to take a short break that extends for hours. The flexibility of working from home can reduce the productivity you had when a manager was looking over your shoulder.

One source of distraction is the computer. No one is watching you check Facebook for the umpteenth time or read the latest celebrity gossip instead of working on a spreadsheet.

Fortunately, there are tools you can download to block distracting websites. Strict Workflow is a free plug-in on Google Chrome that blocks specific websites for 25-minute blocks of distraction-free work. Similarly, StayFocusd limits the time you spend overall on distracting websites. Once you’ve reached your time limit, you’re done for the day.

Another trick is to turn on the “do not disturb” feature on your mobile phone, then put it out of sight. This will help you resist the temptation to check social media or text messages while you’re working.

Earplugs are an inexpensive way to minimize distracting outside noise, or you can invest in a set of noise-canceling headphones. Many people find listening to music distracting, so a white noise app or a site like Coffivity that plays café sounds on a loop can help you focus.

Set up a home workspace

It’s tempting to curl up on the couch in your pajamas with your laptop, but that’s more conducive to taking a nap or watching TV than working. To be productive when working from home, you need a home workspace where you can get down to business.

A spare room set up as a full home office is ideal. You can bring in tools that help you stay productive, like a second monitor, a whiteboard, or a white noise machine. You can shut the door to enforce boundaries.

If that’s not an option, establish a discrete area where you work and only work. This can be as simple as a small desk in a corner of your home exclusively for remote work. If you can, get a roll-top desk you can close so that, once you’re done for the day, your work is out of sight and out of mind.

Get the right work-from-home equipment

A laptop and an internet connection are the basic tools you’ll need, but they probably won’t be sufficient. You should have the communications tools and productivity software you normally use at work. Check with your company’s IT team to make sure you have access to them, as well as security software to protect company data.

Make sure your home computer is fast enough to handle the software tools you’re using. Your company should issue you a device that meets this need. You need a reliable internet connection and a good wireless router to stay connected.

Comfortable work-from-home office equipment is well worth the investment. Treat yourself to an ergonomically friendly space, with a comfortable office chair and keyboard.

Working from home successfully will take planning. Set a schedule, manage distractions, and establish a workspace. Once you do, you’ll maintain or even exceed the productivity you achieved in your company’s physical office.

Best work-from-home software

The hardware that makes it possible for many to work from home becomes far more useful when paired with the best available work-from-home software. If you’ve suddenly found yourself working from home, you have a lot to choose from. The market for collaboration and social software, including messaging apps and collaboration in cloud office suites, is projected to reach $4.8 billion by 2023, according to Gartner.

Using the right work-from-home software improves the performance of each team member and helps managers keep teams on track. These tools make it possible for employees who work from home to collaborate, share documents, and manage projects.

Working from home has many advantages, but you can’t drop by the desk of a coworker to chat about the status of an assignment. These work-from-home software tools fill the gap.


JotForm is unrivaled for ease of use and versatility. It allows you to quickly design forms for employees to request the support and resources they need. JotForm makes it easy for employees who work from home to submit help tickets to the IT department or file end-of-the-week reports.

JotForm includes powerful collaboration features. Multiple team members can work on the same form simultaneously, and all changes are saved automatically. You can also Assign Forms to teammates.

JotForm integrates with nearly all work-from-home software, including tools like Google Drive and Slack as well as the software mentioned below. It’s easy for employees to use JotForm alongside the tools they already use.


monday.com is a team management platform that lets you use templates and building blocks to set up boards to manage projects and workflows. You can use it to track project status and create action items from video chats.

monday.com offers board templates for daily task tracking, creating a company knowledge library, and resource management, among many others. The company also created communications planning and risk assessment templates for organizations to use during the COVID-19 pandemic.

monday.com includes automation capabilities for many routine tasks, such sending automatic email alerts when the status of a task changes.


Collaborating with team members remotely requires secure access to files and the ability to work on those files together. Dropbox is a cloud storage service that provides access to your files no matter where you are.

You can also make files available offline so that you can work on them without an internet connection, if necessary. Once you’re reconnected to the internet, Dropbox will automatically update your files.

Paper is a great collaboration feature baked into Dropbox. It lets you organize projects using to-do lists, timelines, and tables. You can add relevant files so that all the content you need for the project, like PowerPoint presentations and Word documents, is in one place.

Dropbox also lets you make notes directly on files and share feedback without downloading additional software.


Even companies working remotely require signed contracts before they will begin work. DocuSign integrates with JotForm so you can easily send forms to be signed by employees, vendors, or customers.

This saves time and money for everyone involved. Because the extra steps involved in printing contracts are eliminated, contracts are signed faster, and employees can start working on projects sooner.


Asana is a project management app that lets you create checklists, calendars, and boards to manage projects. You can choose the structure that works best for your team and set deadlines and priorities for different tasks.

Asana has features that track the status of projects and tasks. It also enables you to create visual product plans that help you map out each step and identify potential roadblocks.

Asana offers workflow automation tools as well. You can create rules for tasks, like assigning work and due dates. You can write your own rules or use automation templates, as well as create templates from projects that you do regularly.

Choosing work-from-home software

These are just five of the many work-from-home software tools available to help employees and teams collaborate and stay engaged.

When you’re choosing work-from-home software, consider what you’ll be integrating it with, the comfort level of your employees, and your own personal preferences. For example, both Asana and monday.com are project management tools. They have many similar features, so explore both to determine which you prefer, like checklists or boards to organize projects.

All of these tools minimize confusion so that, even if someone isn’t in the office, they have the same information as everyone who is. They can access the files they need to work and collaborate with their teams.

This software can help employees who work from home be as productive as they were in the office.

Working from home can keep a business operating during a pandemic, weather interruption, or any other situation that closes down headquarters. It can also help employees handle other responsibilities and perhaps be even more productive.

While working from home was gaining in popularity before the COVID-19 pandemic, very few employees worked from home routinely and few employers were prepared for the shift required to make working from home a success.

One way employers can set up their employees for WFH success is by creating a work-from-home policy. This provides expectations for employees, and helps them set their own working hours and establish a viable home workspace, as well as communicate and collaborate with their teams.

Technology is essential, and that means more than just a laptop. Collaboration, project management, and file sharing applications are critical WFH software. Providing employees with these tools will help them be more productive, regardless of their location.

Working from home is likely to be an important employee benefit after the coronavirus pandemic passes. As long as employees know what you expect from them and have the right resources, it can be a success for everyone involved.

This article is originally published on May 13, 2020, and updated on Jun 09, 2020


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Police Wrongly Arrested a Black Man Using Racist Facial Recognition Technology

Police Wrongly Arrested a Black Man Using Racist Facial Recognition Technology

Image: Bill Pugliano, Getty

In a spectacularly rare admission of likely very common fuckery, police copped to using face recognition to make a wrongful arrest, according to the ACLU, confirming a long-suspected but nearly-impossible-to-prove practice. On Wednesday, the civil rights litigation group lodged a complaint against the Detroit Police Department for allegedly arresting Robert Williams in early January and admitting, only after holding him in a crowded cell overnight, that “the computer must have gotten it wrong.” Williams is Black, and facial recognition software notoriously misidentifies people of colour.

In a New York Times story today, reporter Kashmir Hill relates how police arrested Williams, on his lawn and in front of his family, for allegedly stealing five watches valued at $US3,800 ($5,515) from a store in October 2018. According to the complaint, the Detroit police had used “blurry” security footage of the crime and matched it to Williams’s driver’s licence photo, which they then showed to a security guard who didn’t witness the incident.

The police didn’t give him any reason for the arrest, and told Williams’s wife to “Google it” when she asked where they were taking him. After a night in jail, police interrogated Williams, showed him a surveillance image from the scene, and asked if it was him. It was not, he said, at which point a detective reportedly said, “I guess the computer got it wrong.” According to the Times, Williams was held for several hours after the interrogation.

A Detroit police spokesperson told the Times that the department “does not make arrests based solely on facial recognition,” and that there were witness interviews, a photo lineup, and that “the investigator reviewed video.” That doesn’t square with a subsequent response from the Wayne County prosecutor’s office, confirming that the Detroit Police Department used facial recognition to identify Williams based on the security footage, and that an eyewitness to the crime was not shown the photo line-up (again, based on the facial recognition match).

The office adds that Williams can have the case expunged and his fingerprints removed from the record. In the statement, Prosecutor Kym L. Worthy said that in 2019, the DPD had asked her to adopt their facial recognition “policy” and declined because of the faulty technology and its built-in racial bias. “This case should not have been issued based on the DPD investigation, and for that we apologise,” Worthy wrote. “This does not in any way make up for the hours that Mr. Williams spent in jail.”

Reuters reported that it reviewed government documents showing that the police made the match using the Michigan state police’s digital analysis identification section, which reportedly uses facial recognition technology from Rank One Computing. The section’s website notes that it pulls from the Statewide Network of Agency Photos, which specifically states on its own site that facial recognition “should never be considered a form of positive identification.”

As the ACLU points out, this instance is exceptional in part because police never admit to using facial recognition. “Had Robert not heard a glib comment from the officer who was interrogating him, he likely never would have known that his ordeal stemmed from a false face recognition match,” two ACLU attorneys familiar with Williams’ case wrote. “In fact, people are almost never told when face recognition has identified them as a suspect. The FBI reportedly used this technology hundreds of thousands of times — yet couldn’t even clearly answer whether it notified people arrested as a result of the technology.” The police obstructed numerous attempts by Williams’ lawyer to obtain documentation on the arrest.

We’ve known that police have used facial recognition to make arrests in the past; in 2016, the ACLU uncovered an internal marketing document from the social media location tracking company Geofeedia, which bragged that its technology enabled police to use facial recognition to identify Freddie Grey “rioters” with outstanding warrants and arrest them from the crowds. The implications are boundless; just after protests began over George Floyd’s death last month, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the facial recognition company Clearview AI, which provides law enforcement agencies and private companies the ability to match (or “match”) faceprints scraped from social media and even Venmo accounts.

The ACLU demands in its complaint that the Detroit Police Department stop using facial recognition in its investigations, “as the facts of Mr. Williams’ case prove both that the technology is flawed and that DPD investigators are not competent in making use of such technology.”

The Detroit Police Department, Rank One, and the ACLU were unavailable for comment.

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Police and Big Tech Are Partners in Crime. We Need to Abolish Them Both

Police and Big Tech Are Partners in Crime. We Need to Abolish Them Both

For the past few decades, there have been constant warnings that our technological developments are threatening to outpace our civilization’s ability to adapt to and contain them. Some of today’s loudest alarms are being rung by the likes of Peter Thiel or Elon Musk, billionaires who are quick to rattle off a long list of doomsday tech scenarios (killer artificial intelligence, digital or biological weapons). Who is going to tell them that these moments have already come to pass, especially for those of us who are not white?

Some of the more blood-stained hands need little reminder. Over the past few weeks of protests set off by ex-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chavin killing George Floyd, waves of technology companies have offered pithy statements and gestures meant to distract from their role in enabling police violence, giving police powerful but often ineffective technologies, empowering federal authorities, and immiserating Black and brown communities for profit.

As debates rage over the best way to eliminate police violence, we should look at the way technology has been used to depoliticize crime while criminalizing marginalized groups and building a massive surveillance infrastructure that inevitably targets against Black and brown people.

In her New York Times op-ed “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police” Mariame Kaba explains that the origins of policing in strike busting and slave patrols should remind us that historically they’ve “suppressed marginalized populations to protect the status quo.” A century of reforms have failed to reduce police violence, especially against Black people, because when “a police officer brutalizes a black person, he is doing what he sees as his job.”

Defunding the police for terrorizing Black and brown communities is part of a larger ambition: the abolition of police (and prisons) to create “vital systems of support that many communities lack” instead of systems of brutalization, as prison abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore puts it. The question still remains however: what does abolition mean for the companies and industries that empower police violence and profit from it?

The politics behind how crime is constructed and technology is deployed in response are a good place to start. We must, as political economist Jathan Sadowski writes in OneZero, become “Marie Kondo, but for technology. Does this thing contribute to human well-being and/or social welfare? If not, toss it away!”

How are crime and technology political?

For years, there has been a scramble for policing tools or methods to counter the growing public perception of policing as inherently racist, arbitrary, and gratuitously violent, with scientific narratives emphasizing objectivity and the statistical analysis of patterns. In one influential paper on the subject published in 2011, researchers David Weisburd and Peter Neyroud called for a “radical reformation of the role of science in policing” and argued that “the advancement of science in policing is essential if police are to retain public support and legitimacy.”

The great hope Weisburg, Neyroud, criminologists, and police departments espouse is the idea of remaking policing into an “arena of evidence-based policies” and convincing the public that it is driven by statistical analysis not racism—by the reality of crime not the dictates of officials informed by racial bias.

This cannot wipe away the fact, however, that criminalization has been well-established to have never been neutral, but always capitalizing on race, socioeconomics, or a variety of proxies to determine who is and what is criminal (and who is most often prosecuted for “crimes,” thus creating a statistical footing for algorithms to analyze). In their study From “brute” to “thug”: the demonization and criminalization of unarmed Black male victims in America, sociologists Calvin John Smiley and David Fakunle explore historical accounts of “myths, stereotypes, and racist ideologies led to discriminatory policies and court rulings that fueled racial violence in a post-Reconstruction era and [have] culminated in the exponential increase of Black male incarceration today.” Historian Khali Gibran Muhammad’s The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime and the Making of Modern America argues that in “a rapidly industrializing, urbanizing, and demographically shifting America, Blackness was refashioned through crime statistics” and the 20th century saw great energy expended to forge seemingly empirical links between Blackness and criminality that would justify evidence-based policies seeking to terrorizing and brutalizing Black people.

Muhammad traces back the origins of America’s racialization of criminality back to the 1890 census, and part of a larger project to explain away racial incarceration disparities as individual failings—criminality not as a social phenomena but a cultural trait inherent to some inferior racial groups. Ironically enough, investigative reporter Yasha Levine also points to this moment as the origin point for the racism endemic to modern computer technology, and more specifically to Silicon Valley: “As the battle over the 2020 census makes clear, the drive to tally up our neighbors, to sort them into categories and turn them into statistics, still carries the seed of our own dehumanization.”

Technology, criminalization, and thus, crime statistics may be presented as race-neutral or apolitical, but historical evidence—and a little critical thinking—make it clear that this is bullshit. As Sadowski’s Too Smart argues, technology is best understood as “embedded with values and intentions…the result of decisions and actions made by humans, and it is then used by humans with motivations and goals.” Sadowski’s book focuses primarily on smart tech—integral to policing’s evidence-based rebrand—and fleshes out two major imperatives of smart tech to collect and control data: “The imperative of collection is about extracting all data, from all sources, by any means possible…the imperative of control is about creating systems that monitor, manage, and manipulate the world and people.”

The imperative to collect seeks to recast data “as an omnipresent resource right at the time when there is so much to gain for whoever can lay claim to that data and capitalize on its value.” The imperative to control “works through various, sprawling, connected, hidden systems, which monitor people by breaking them down into data points that can be recorded, analyzed, and assessed in real time” so that exclusion and inclusion can be finely tuned with checkpoints and passwords. Both of these imperatives are obviously political, especially given the racist origins of computing technology as a way to naturalize structural outcomes like poverty and incarceration.

Given this history, attempts to depoliticize such inherently political phenomena are worrying to say the least. In both cases, such efforts also betray a certain urgency that contradicts the supposed goal of improving public safety and health. According to Weisburg and Neyroud, depoliticizing crime will allow policing to “ensure its survival in a competitive world of provision of public services”—in other words, the institution is primarily concerned with preserving itself, not protecting us. And as technology critic Evgeny Morozov observed in his cutting review of Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants, apolitical and ahistorical conceptions of technology are useless unless you are interested in selling useless advice to corporations so they can sell a bullshit, apolitical narrative to the public. It’s not clear to me why we shouldn’t assume this is what they want.

Police-tech partnerships build a racist, yet legitimate, surveillance state

In their quest to regain legitimacy by depoliticizing crime as a category and technology as a tool, law enforcement have created the conditions for racist policing to be perpetually reproduced. Nowhere is this more clear than in the implementation of predictive policing and facial recognition software, two tools that have at best simply maintained the status quo and at worst have deepened the racial disparities behind criminalization, police violence, and incarceration.

Before policing began to flirt with predictive analytics, it was already widespread in the private sector. The insurance industry, for example, has for decades enjoyed an ability to “record, analyze, discipline, and punish people.”. “Smart” systems—specifically surveillance tools that ensure a never-ending flow of data and analysis—have allowed insurance companies and financial institutions to maintain that “judgements about who is responsible, what things are worth, how society should be organized” are now objective, even when their outcomes replicate society’s own structural disparities.

Predictive analytics in policing has been no different. Consider William Bratton, who as New York City Police Commissioner between 1994 and 1996 championed broken-windows policing (a focus on “minor” crimes to prevent violent offenses) and introduced COMPSTAT (a “data-driven” system to track and respond to crime in real-time), low-tech predictive policing precursors that resulted in incredibly racist outcomes. There’s scant evidence broken-windows policing was anything more than a new way to justify and expand racist and classist policing patterns. COMPSTAT led to the expansion of New York City’s unconstitutional stop-and-frisk program, a racial profiling strategy terrorized non-white communities in exchange for lasting negative impacts on mental health, educational attainment, and civic engagement.

None of this deterred Bratton. After becoming LAPD chief in 2002, he enlisted Sean Malinowski—then a sergeant with a doctorate in public administration—to improve LAPD’s COMPSTAT and then, in 2007, put out a call to action: “’I’m asking that more researchers begin to work with us and among us in the real-world laboratories of our departments and cities to help us prove or disprove the beliefs and practices that I, as a practitioner, and most of my colleagues deeply believe, espouse, and practice.”

Out of this, a flurry of data-driven experiments would emerge, the most important of which was PredPol. P. Jeffrey Brantingham, PredPol’s frontman, was a UCLA anthropologist, who approached the pair and offered to adapt a model that predicted earthquake aftershocks to predict crime using historical crime statistics. Officers would be given maps with red 500 square foot boxes where crime would happen and expected to patrol these boxes to deter crime or catch criminals in the act. As Motherboard has reported, software like PredPol is and has been racist from the start.

Legal scholars have warned that predictive policing systems threaten Fourth Amendment rights, namely requiring “reasonable suspicion” for a police officer to stop to protect against “unreasonable searches and seizures” by rendering individuals within a certain space at a certain time as potential criminals. Add this to the fact that not only is location one of many proxies for race, but that reliance on historical crime data will reinforce existing disparities in policing which focus on non-white communities in cities instead of, say, white communities in the suburbs, and further incentivize the expansion of “smart” systems to not only collect data through surveillance but, as Bratton put it in his 2007 call to action, “control behavior to such a degree that we can change behavior.”

Santa Cruz, one of the first U.S. cities to adopt PredPol, is now set to be the first U.S. city to ban the software—dozens of cities have or are still secretly experimenting with the program. And even if every city were to ban predictive policing, it is likely that serious damage has already been done with the adoption of a depoliticized crime and technology paradigm that merely reinforced racist policing and re-legitimized our systemically violent police departments. For nearly a decade, concerns have been raised that this paradigm not only distorts crime data for its own ends, but makes it near impossible to accurately assess its impact, positive or negative, on crime.

This problem is not limited to predictive policing, however, and actually persists across all technologies provided to police departments. Time and time again, we see technology being deployed to simply legitimize racist policing or the targeting of marginalized communities in new and old ways.

Despite the fact that facial recognition technology is widely acknowledged to be rife with racial bias, Amazon has for years provided its own racist product, Rekognition, to a handful of police departments. The company declared a one-year moratorium on providing facial recognition technology to the police, but this does not extend to its impressive lobbying efforts to write the laws that will regulate facial recognition and it cannot undo the false positives that have already led to one man, that we know of, being wrongfully accused by an algorithm. Nor does the temporary ban extend to its home surveillance network, Ring, which Amazon has gone to great lengths to not only provide to over one thousand police departments, but position to profit from the racist suburban paranoia that drives communities to adopt the camera in the first place. Nor does it extend to the “heat maps” of package thefts that Amazon has provided to police.

In the wake of the George Floyd protests, aerial surveillance was used in at least 15 different cities to track protesters—a callback to when the FBI operated a fleet of surveillance aircraft that flew over U.S. cities. Ostensibly concerned about civil unrest, federal agencies have deployed powerful surveillance tools and gained expansive new executive powers to closely track the protests along with any associated social media activity—a throwback to the federal government’s long history of using powerful surveillance tools to surveil protesters and dissidents, especially Black activists. Calls for transparency have grown as a result, but what good is sanitizing this surveillance infrastructure with light if we won’t take it down?

Abolition demands we become Luddites

Most talk of abolition focuses on the police and prisons, institutions whose punitive vision of addressing harm within our communities has transformed society into one dominated by dragnet surveillance and criminalization motivated by biases, all in the name of solving crime without actually addressing the root causes of it. But what of the infrastructures—the carceral tech—enthusiastically built by companies like Amazon, IBM, Palantir, Clearview, Axon (the maker of Tasers and body cameras), and hundreds of other tech companies?

In a column for the Guardian, Ben Tarnoff argues that in order to avoid a climate apocalypse, we’ll need to decarbonize by halting Big Tech’s attempt to digitize everything by deploying computing technology everywhere. Such a position might draw accusations of Luddism, but to that Tarnoff says:

“Good: Luddism is a label to embrace. The Luddites were heroic figures and acute technological thinkers. They smashed textile machinery in 19th-century England because they had the capacity to perceive technology ‘in the present tense,’ in the words of the historian David F Noble. They didn’t wait patiently for the glorious future promised by the gospel of progress. They saw what certain machines were doing to them in the present tense—endangering their livelihoods—and dismantled them.”

For years, budget cuts for public goods and services have been matched with budget increases for police departments, prison facilities, and technology contracts to further bloat police and prisons. Couple this with a world where Silicon Valley companies have a near-infinite ability to raise capital regardless of profitability and what do we expect? A society dominated by institutions like Wall Street, monolithic tech companies, the Pentagon, police departments, and prisons is a society dominated by infrastructures that prioritize their interests and imperatives above all else.

“Rather than austerity for schools and services, we need austerity for surveillance and social control,” writes Sadowski. “More concretely, unmaking also means systematically ripping out cameras, ShotSpotters, and other spy tech filling our cities.” The vision Sadowski lays out in OneZero, but also in his book is worth considering as we figure out what police and prison abolition might mean with regards to tech.

Part of that vision includes abolishing Silicon Valley by unmaking an industrial model that allows a narrow group of people to dictate the who, what, where, how, and why of technological development. We should be comfortable deciding that some forms of technology will never get built while others get destroyed and dismantled, or that some entities are never allowed to get their hands on various types of technology.

We’ll also need to liberate technological development from the dictates of capital—why should this or that tech be developed if it doesn’t prioritize human well-being or social welfare; why shouldn’t something be developed if it does but isn’t profitable to a narrow group of investors? Democratizing innovation is also necessary if we want to ensure our definitions of well-being or social welfare don’t look suspiciously similar to what is good for a status quo prioritizing the privileged and powerful. And it makes sense, then, that democratization prioritizes who are going to be subjected to a technology as ones who have serious substantive roles in its creation and design that goes beyond consumption. And it also follows that this means transparency results in fairer access to the datasets and tools that shape our everyday lives so that, together, we can unmake control systems and build up support systems that prioritize public good, not private profit.

The emphasis needs to be on not simply reforming the status quo propping up our deeply broken technopolitics but radically altering the political economy so that we can finally address the rampant racism, classism, and sexism embedded in the tools building our society and mediating our daily lives. Public ownership of data to solve social problems without endless commodification, not data dividends that reinforce a one-sided and exploitative firm-consumer relationship. The dismantling of our planetary surveillance infrastructure, not a re-legitimization that threatens to make permanent some of its most pernicious elements.

For too long, we’ve allowed the same people who’ve historically used crime and technology as political weapons to convince us that these are ahistorical and apolitical—natural and neutral even. As long as we subscribe to those delusions, we will never be able to take the steps necessary to contest their control over how crime is constructed as a category that aids social control or how technology is deployed as a tool to further a narrow group’s interests. And as long as we are unable to see, let alone win, political battles that come with defining crime or designing technology, we will never be in a position to build the world we want.

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Eyes in the Sky

Eyes in the Sky

It’s 3: 13 a.m., and Radio Inspector Ashok Kumar turns around to look at his computer. His face stiffens. He zooms in on the screen and squints at an unauthorized SUV crossing a pontoon bridge.

Kumar and his team are in the Integrated Command and Control Center (ICCC) overlooking operations for this year’s Magh Mela, an annual Hindu pilgrimage and festival that draws millions of people in a single day. Each year, devotees from all across the country congregate at the spot where the Ganges, Yamuna, and mythical Saraswati rivers converge at Prayagraj in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. There, devotees dip in the water, which they believe cleanses them of their sins.

It is here at the ICCC, a big white room with two rows of desks, that the police keep a vigil over the mela (the Hindi word for “fair”). At each terminal, policemen hunch over computer screens as they monitor feeds from around 700 closed-circuit TV cameras. A video wall dominates, with 55-inch screens arranged in a 10 by 2 matrix along the length of the room. Khaki jackets emblazoned with “Uttar Pradesh Police” hang on the backs of the chairs. Tapping their shoeless feet on the carpeted floor, the officers glance at each other regularly, followed by tentative nods implying that everything is fine.

The monitoring team is on high alert. Kumar and his team have been here since 8 p.m. last night, on a 12-hour shift, and the first bathing rituals began at 3 a.m. Today is February 9, and it is the full moon day of Maghi Purnima. Police are expecting a crowd of 7.5 million — down from a single-day peak of 11 million two weeks earlier. Millions of pilgrims will be leaving after today’s dip. Many are joined by their families, who have come to take them home.

Kumar’s job is to keep this massive crowd under control. Stampedes, terror attacks, and theft are on his mind. He places a call, and minutes after the SUV is vetted, a police officer appears on-screen to set up a barricade at the foot of the bridge.

Outside, as LED lights switch off, an easterly sunrise turns the sky several shades of crimson. On the water, the boats stand out in silhouette. The air contains a mix of piety and festivity.

Police from the Integrated Command and Control Centre monitor the crowd of devotees with around 700 closed-circuit TV cameras.

The Magh Mela is a smaller version of the Kumbh Mela, the largest human gathering on earth. The Kumbh is held every six years, and the previous one was held in 2019. Over 49 days last year, more than 250 million people took a dip in the sangam, the point where the three rivers meet, with the biggest one-day crowd reaching 50 million. It was the second-largest gathering in history.

To prepare for the melas, tens of thousands of officials spend months setting up a massive temporary city on the banks of the Ganges. Viewed from above, it is a colorful patchwork divided by big and small bodies of water. Much of this — tents, floating bridges, and metal sheet roads — is built specifically for the festival. As the riverbed floods every year, the city lasts for only several months before the Ganges threatens to reclaim the land.

The physical structure of the mela changes each year, depending on the river. The groundwork usually starts in October, after monsoon season, when the Ganges retreats. Temporary roads are marked, and pontoon bridges are built to join land separated by water. Jetties are built on the banks; the roads are lined with metal sheets; pipelines and electricity cables are laid. Bathing stations are set up along a 3-mile floating jetty, with nets spread underneath to catch those who fall in.

This year, the Ganges’ water levels remained high later than usual. “We could reclaim land only by the end of November, but heavy rains kept hampering civil works until December,” says Rajneesh Mishra, a civil servant who oversees the Mela. This year’s mela was spread over 270 hectares (667 acres), about 30% bigger than Monaco, and divided into six sectors for administrative purposes. Setting up the infrastructure was — and is — an immense logistical feat. The mela has 13 police stations, 40 police outposts, and five thermal power stations. There are five hospitals with operation theaters and 25 beds each, as well as labs, testing facilities, and on-site ambulances.

All of this requires a substantial budget. For this year’s mela, the state government budgeted $77 million. Last year, for the Kumbh, it spent $558 million.

All IT operations for the festival are run by the ICCC, which is based in a three-story concrete building that was inaugurated a little over a year ago by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It’s one of the few permanent structures in the mela area, besides a temple and a 16th-century fort. The center itself is divided up between the monitoring room, which uses a video surveillance system to keep a bird’s-eye view on the mela; the wireless grid room, which liaises between monitors and the ground staff; the war room, where personnel from the fire, water, and police departments as well as the military are on hand at all hours to deal with emergencies; and, finally, a call center.

The key tool in the ICCC’s arsenal is the crowd management application (CMA) system, which keeps an eye on crowd density across all 700 camera feeds. The system is taught how much ground area each CCTV camera covers, which then allows it to estimate, with 85% accuracy, the number of people in a space at any given time. If there are more than three people per square meter, the system issues a warning, and the ground police team is notified and instructed to stop, hold, or divert the crowd.

The Prayagraj Smart City Mission team, which oversees the ICCC, considered various methods for crowd management before settling on the CMA. One option was to estimate crowd size by measuring an area’s smartphone density. But this idea was quickly scrapped. Most devotees at Magh Mela are not smartphone users, says assistant manager Vipin Singh. Only 500 million people in India — roughly one-third of the population — own smartphones. Additionally, many families share one phone, and rural residents (who form as much as 95% of mela attendees, according to police estimates) often don’t use them at all. “If the system shows three people,” says Singh, “there might actually be 100, where 97 are carrying basic mobile phones or no phones at all.”

Last year, officials also experimented with a facial recognition system. The idea was that the technology would provide accurate headcounts, track patterns of movement, and measure time spent between distinct points. But that didn’t work either, as people often carry big bags on their heads as they navigate mela crowds. That meant that, for every face the system could see, a piece of luggage might conceal several more.

Cars have proven easier to track. The automated number plate recognition (ANPR) system records the license number of every vehicle entering or exiting the city, checking it against a database containing the license numbers of stolen vehicles and ones involved in crimes. If a match is found, an alert goes off. For this Magh Mela, says Singh, the administration installed ANPR-aided cameras at eight locations on the city’s periphery. But there are plans to ramp up. “For the next mela,” he says, “we’re looking to increase this to 28 locations.”

It’s 7: 17 a.m. Mamta Sharma stands knee-deep in the river.

Facing east toward the Ganges, she presses her hands in a namaste. She bows her head several times and chants a prayer under her breath. And then she takes a dip in the river, repeating it four times.

Seagulls glide over the heads of bowing devotees, but neither seem to mind the other. When pilgrims toss bits of fruit into the river, the seagulls scoop them up before they land in the water.

Some devotees hire boats to get to the point believed to be the exact location where the three rivers meet. There, people offer their respects to the river, take dips, and fill plastic cans with sacred water. At the sangam, you can see colors mixing, says boatman Ajay Nishad. “The whitish water is that of the Ganges, and the black that of the Yamuna,” he says. Stare long enough and one might think that he is right.

People who can’t afford to hire a boat, which is most pilgrims, instead bathe close to the bank. The mela administration encourages this to avoid overcrowding.

Sharma comes out of the river. Still dripping, she makes a video call to her mother, who could not come with her. She pans her phone to show the sangam to her mother, who offers namaste multiple times, her eyes welling up.

While she dries off, Sharma keeps looking up expectantly. On some auspicious days, the mela administration showers flowers on bathing devotees from a helicopter. She has seen videos of it on social media. “We were all excited about it, but it hasn’t happened today,” she says.

“Still, the holy dip is quite an experience.”

Sharma, who lives in Kolkata in eastern India, has come to the Magh Mela with a group of 12. They live in different cities but come from the same family in Jaunpur, over 100 kilometers from here. Most are elderly. At 31, Sharma is the youngest.

Nishad, the boatman, has been ferrying visitors to the sangam for three years, and he says the melas are always very well organized. Police designate holding areas to keep people safe when crowds swell, and are good at managing foot traffic to prevent bottlenecks. While it can take several hours to find missing people — pilgrims getting separated is a common problem at melas — he says the administration always tracks them down.

But, lately, he has noticed something new. Officials have started using a lot of cameras, he says.

“Just look up,” he says, pointing to a drone hovering over the river. “It’s watching everything.”

The annual festival draws millions from all across the country.

It was at last year’s Kumbh Mela that the ICCC proved its worth. On Mauni Amavasya, the day when the mela drew a crowd of 50 million people, officials defused a situation that could have easily turned dangerous. Around 5 p.m., after the auspicious hour for the holy bath ended, millions of people left the mela and rushed toward the Allahabad railway station. Within minutes, it was overflowing.

Singh, the Prayagraj Smart City administrator, recounts that people weren’t able to move an inch. “It was a very tense situation,” he says.

Hanging over that moment was the memory of the 2013 Kumbh, when a stampede led to the death of 38 people at Allahabad railway station. The exact sequence of events remains contentious, but an inquiry found that North Central Railways authorities had underestimated the crowd size and hadn’t arranged enough trains, while the state government failed to deploy nearly 6,000 buses to relieve pressure. Police also bungled crowd management. This wasn’t the first time that such a tragedy had occurred: since 1820, there have been more than half a dozen stampedes at Kumbh Mela celebrations. In 1954, at the first Kumbh in independent India, up to 500 people died and more than 2,000 were injured when panic broke out.

This time, however, cameras equipped with artificial intelligence (AI) had already flagged areas where human density had reached unsafe levels and alerted officials about an impending stampede. It was the first time that an AI-based crowd management application had ever been used in India. Additionally, in advance of this year’s mela, railway authorities had collaborated with the Motilal Nehru National Institute of Technology to develop a crowd-simulation tool that could calculate the amount of time a person takes between entering the station and boarding a train. Extrapolating from that, they estimated that the Allahabad station could handle 10,000 mela passengers in an hour and took measures to keep people safe.

At the ICCC headquarters, authorities issued instructions to cordon off the Johnstongunj junction on the way to the train station and told police on the ground to form a human chain around a 15,000-person crowd. An additional 30,000 people were diverted to a 16-hectare (40-acre) garden to keep them away from the roads. To clear out the train station, the ICCC used camera feeds to estimate the number of additional trains the railways needed to run. By the end of the day, 75 trains had been added, and 300 passenger trains already scheduled to pass through the station were each set to accept between 500 and 1,000 departing pilgrims.

It took officials several hours to calm the situation, but by the end of the day, the roads and the railway station were cleared. A dozen devotees were injured when a small stampede broke out in another part of the mela, but no casualties were reported.

A major disaster had been averted.

Around 9 p.m. on February 4, a police constable in the monitoring room was watching the video feeds from the tent city. It had been largely an uneventful day until then.

With his eyes on the screen, the constable was chatting with his colleagues about the remaining two big bathing events. He was lamenting how many days were left for the mela and how many 12-hour shifts he still had to pull.

“What is it?” he said, to nobody in particular. He was already zooming in on a screen. Images of rising smoke came up.

“It’s a fire,” he shouted.

Immediately, he picked up the phone and called the wireless grid.

“A fire in a tent! It has just started.”

The smoke rose from a camp where thousands of devotees had pitched their tents next to each other.

Once the wireless grid was informed, they alerted the ground response team. Moments later, firefighters reached the spot and put out the fire. All of this took less than a minute, without pilgrims even noticing what was going on. “People in the tents were surprised to see them,” says SS Dubey, a fireman working in the war room.

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Because so many people pitch tents at melas and cook their own meals, gas fires are fairly common. At least four have broken out this mela, says Ashutosh Mishra, Additional Superintendent of Police (ADSP), Magh Mela. In all of them, he added, “Our response time has been less than two minutes.” Before the ICCC, chimed in his colleague, Radio Sub-Inspector Sanjay Kumar, officials had to rely on tips from the public to learn about fires.

“By then,” he says, “half the mela could have burnt down.”

In addition to fires, police on the ground deal mostly with stopping petty crimes and preventing stampedes. Teams of police can be seen every 20 to 50 meters, says Mishra, and they are always in contact with the control room. This comes in handy if misinformation spreads, as officers can verify facts in real time and calm people down. “They can tell people, ‘We have asked the control room. Nothing has happened.’” It also allows them to more effectively address smaller problems, such as lost pilgrims or fake priests. With so much going on, Sub-Inspector Jitendra Kumar Gautam relies on the ICCC to be his eyes in the sky. “I’m covering a 1.5 kilometer area,” he says. “I try to be as vigilant as possible. But [without them] how would I know where I’m needed the most?”

Throughout the day, a PA system close to the police watchtower, the tallest structure in the mela, continuously announces the names and descriptions of people who have been separated from their families. Once in a while, the microphone will be handed over to somebody looking for their loved one. “Aye Rahul ke papa! Hum Rahul ki mummy. Sun rahe hain; jaldi aaiye yehan.” (“Hey, Rahul’s dad, this is Rahul’s mum calling for you. Rush here quickly if you can hear me.”) In small-town India, it’s common for people to refer to themselves in terms of their offspring. It’s usually the oldest child who gets the honor of being mentioned.

This year the police introduced a computerized missing-people center that uses a central server to match individuals with descriptions of lost people. The center, however, still had a few kinks to work out. That evening, the constable behind the desk was struggling to connect to the server. “This happens every day,” she says. Many of the police running the system weren’t well versed with IT or networking technologies and hadn’t received proper training. So the constable came up with another solution: she was passing information to the people running the PA system.

While the mela is equipped with all kinds of sophisticated technologies, certain time-tested “low-tech” solutions like the PA system still get the job done. Ultimately, the most important factor in the smooth operation of the mela is the institutional knowledge that has been gathered over decades, such as knowing where exactly to deploy security personnel and how to manage foot traffic. There’s perhaps an irony in the fact that a multi-million-dollar tech apparatus governs the experience of millions of devotees whose relationship with technology is peripheral at best. Yet as they attempt to release themselves from the cycle of rebirths and attain salvation, this is likely not top of mind.

Back at the Prayagraj City ICCC, assistant manager Singh walks around checking video feeds from mela exits and the railway station. He seems pleased with how crowd management has gone. While last year’s Kumbh Mela was instructive for his team, the much smaller Magh Mela has allowed them to experiment with and refine their tech.

“We’re using this mela to gather more data for deep learning,” he says.

As an example, he offers the problem of waste removal. To keep the mela clean, AI-enabled cameras have been set up and trained to recognize when a trash can is full. Additionally, the can uses an RFID tagging system to send a signal to a nearby garbage truck. Singh’s team is also developing a system that will automatically photograph anybody who litters. “We are internally using this to find out where littering happens so that we can clear it. Right now, we’re not looking to identify the persons responsible for it,” he clarifies.

The systems in place at the Magh Mela are just further examples of the growing role of surveillance tech in India. In a landmark 2017 ruling on Aadhaar (the national biometric identity card program), the country’s Supreme Court declared individual privacy to be a fundamental right. This, however, has not stopped the Modi government from expanding the use of surveillance, particularly facial recognition technologies, in daily life. In December 2019, police used the software to track people at a rally in New Delhi, and that same month, the federal government introduced the Personal Data Protection bill to empower them to collect anonymized personal data from companies.

Facial recognition systems are already in place at the Bangalore and Hyderabad international airports, and the Modi government is currently looking into implementing the world’s largest facial recognition system. In recent months, police have been using AI-based cameras and facial recognition technologies to enforce COVID-19 lockdowns in Pune and Hyderabad. N.S. Nappinai, a lawyer who specializes in cyber law at India’s Supreme Court, says that there are no specific laws or regulations currently governing the technology, and legal precedents have yet to be established. Nappinai warns Magh Mela attendees that “a substantial portion of personal data is being collected, retained, and used through facial recognition technology, not just during the mela but after too.”

Many pilgrims, however, are not aware of these controversies. And mela authorities routinely brush aside questions about data collection and privacy, redirecting conversation back toward security.

“We’re going to implement all our learnings to perfect tech solutions. The next Magh Mela will see an even better implementation of technology,” says Singh.

The day has wound down, and Mamta Sharma is pleased with her experience.

“Nowhere in the mela were we pushed around or rushed,” she says. “It is crowded, but we can keep walking. I was scared for the old people with me. But everything was just fine.”

“I don’t know how they organized the mela, but they did it very well.”

The mela will last for another 12 days or so, with another big gathering at the end. But devotees who came in just for the day are leaving. Pilgrims are vacating their camps; tents are being stripped of sarees and bedsheets; women are tying their belongings into neat little bundles, and men are loading them on vehicles. Some are rushing to fill the last can with holy water.

On the banks of the river, women squat as they offer evening prayers to the river. A bunch of young girls light earthen lamps and place them in the water. A couple married the previous night are still in wedding attire. They bow to the sangam for blessings. Around them, young boatmen are posing for pictures. One climbs on his dinghy and stretches his arms out like a Bollywood film star. An old man, clad in saffron, picks up a crutch from his scooter and stands to offer respect to the river. Before him, the golden waters of the sangam blend into the gray mist. The sun has set over the mela.

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Live Stream Like a Pro – How to Captivate Your Audience with a Live Video

Live Stream Like a Pro – How to Captivate Your Audience with a Live Video

This article has been contributed by Amanda Smith.

With videos dominating content on social media, live streaming is becoming an important marketing tool. Live streaming has grown so big that 47% of the global audience is streaming more live videos every year. As live streaming grows as a trending technology, it opens up a new way for brands to improve their reach and connect with the audience in real-time authentically.

Captivate your audience with live streaming

Businesses of all sizes and shapes are leveraging the lucrative opportunities presented by live streaming for more reach and better engagement with their target audiences.

Whether you have been broadcasting live for years or you are a total beginner to the game, there are plenty of ways to amplify your brand’s reach and captivate your audience with this powerful tool.

1. Embrace both spontaneity and preparation for your live stream

For businesses, creating a professional video is something that needs a great amount of preparation and effort. Even a 10-second video needs extensive planning, script preparation, casting, etc. However, with live streaming, you need to strike a different balance. Live videos are authentic and in real-time, but you want to ensure that you are prepared enough to offer your audience a quality experience at the same time.

Regarding preparation, you must ensure that you are well versed in how to set up a live streaming video, have the right equipment, and a strong internet connection. You also need to ensure the platform you are streaming from has the essential features needed.

On the spontaneity side, you must give yourself space to change the script accordingly. Live videos don’t have to be polished to be effective. You can make modifications accordingly.

2. Leverage the advantage of immediacy that live streaming creates

Live streaming creates a sense of urgency that is hard to replicate in the digital world. You get a real advantage over pre-recorded videos as they can connect with your audience in real-time. You can also connect with them on a different level and capture the attention of new viewers.

3. Live stream events

Streaming an important business event or an industry event is a great idea, especially for businesses that are new to live streaming. In this case, you don’t have to find a topic or location. With a planned event, all of those aspects are already taken care of. You just have to take care of things such as how to shoot it the right way so that your audience can watch and hear clearly.

If you are streaming a launch party for new products of a brand, walk around with your phone or camera and interact with the attendees as well. However you choose to do it, the ultimate goal is to give your viewers the sense that they are there witnessing the event. Make sure you give them a good time enjoying the event.

4. Take your audience behind the scenes with live video

The audience of today loves to learn what goes on behind the scenes of your business. If you take YouTube searches, the search volume for bloopers, making videos and behind the scenes of popular events are trending.

Leverage live streaming to show your audience how our business processes work, how your team comes up with product ideas, or how you test new products. Keep your narration simple, short, and to the point to make your viewers understand things the right way.

5. Broadcast Q&A sessions

To facilitate user engagement, consider hosting live Q&A sessions to enhance both quality and quantity when it comes to user engagement. To make it effective, pick a subject for your Q&A sessions instead of inviting random questions. Planning the topic and how to execute the live videos will help to direct the sessions and interact with your viewers the best way.

You can ask your viewers to post their queries earlier so that you can answer questions when it’s convenient for you. Try to keep answers to a few sentences so that you get time to respond to everyone. If someone asks a question that is worth a detailed explanation, consider hosting a separate live stream video to discuss the topic.

Live Q&A sessions allow your fans to enjoy a sense of personal connection with your business.

6. Interview industry leaders

To make your live streaming sessions more interesting and informative, bring in industry leaders or prominent personalities. Just like Q&A live streaming, hosting live interviews also gives the audience a sense of connectedness and intimacy with the person who is being interviewed. To make it more engaging, you can invite viewers to ask questions as well.

For example, American Music awards live streamed friendly chat with the stars who arrived at the Coca-Cola Red Carpet.

7. Host giveaways or contests

Who doesn’t like receiving free gifts and offers? That is why hosting live giveaways or online contests can attract large audiences. While you can do this easily by inviting participants to post comments on your live videos for a chance to win, you could spice up engagement by adding elements of skills and fun. This will help to engage existing viewers as well as gain new users.

8. Conduct live training

What about offering an educational or informational opportunity for your customers? Offer a live broadcast on how to complete a certain task related to your industry. Or if you are a live streaming business, you can offer a class on how to set up a live streaming video or simply ask your viewers what they would like to learn about and then offer classes accordingly. Once in a while, ask your viewers what they like to see live to ensure that they stay interested in the videos you stream.

For example, HubSpot went live with a topic on how social media has changed and what marketers should do to cope with the changing landscape, which bagged over 15,000 views.

9. Repurpose your live streams

Another major advantage of live streaming is that the life of your video doesn’t end with a live broadcast. Once your live stream ends, you can save it to your live streaming platform and share it via other social media networks like Facebook. This will not only help earn more viewers for your live videos when you are actually live, but also expand the reach even after the broadcast is ended.

More users watch videos that were recorded live that videos that weren’t. You can repurpose your live streams the same way you would do other videos. Consider integrating live streams into your blogs and newsletters, and post highlights on social media networks. The possibilities are endless.

What do you need to set up live streaming?

A decade back, both technical and skill requirements were a large barrier for brands hoping to enter the live streaming space. The basic setup costs were high, so many brands refrained from using live streaming to boost their business.

However, today, brands of any size can try live streaming even on a small budget. That said, if you want to take it to an advanced level, you will need to invest in good quality live streaming equipment. Here’s some essential equipment you need to set up a live streaming environment.

1. Computer

To begin with, you can either use a desktop computer or a laptop to start live streaming. Look for a computer that comes with at least an Intel i7 CPU and a minimum of 8 GB RAM with several USB ports. If you want more USB ports, consider using a desktop instead of a laptop.

2. Camera

Live streaming video camera equipment is an important factor that contributes to a great viewing experience. When it comes to the camera, look for easy and affordable options like a basic USB cam if you are just starting out.

When using a digital camera for your live videos or even if you are using a smartphone, it is recommended to invest in a tripod as well. You can start shooting your live videos with a great quality smartphone and then expand to a DSLR as your business expands. You can also invest in multiple cameras to film big events from various angles.

3. Microphone

Besides the camera quality, audio quality is the next most important aspect of live streaming. Without a good audio setup, your live videos will never be perfect. To deliver a great audio experience in your live videos, consider using good quality mics that filter out background noise.

4. Live streaming software

Live streaming software is where professional live streams begin. Live streaming software allows you to add multiple cameras, control audio and video settings, implement transition effects, and stream to multiple platforms simultaneously.

If you don’t have a flexible budget, invest in software that features a built-in encoder to save on a separate encoder. An encoder is essential to convert your live videos to different quality levels to suit the requirements of different devices.

5. A strong internet connection

Another important requirement of a professional streaming setup is a strong internet connection. To live stream and ensure smooth video delivery, you need a strong internet connection with the right bandwidth to support great quality live streams. Consider using a wired network connection instead of a Wi-Fi as it tends to be more stable. Before going live, test your internet speed and make sure you can maintain a speed between 3mbps and 5mbps for delay-free live streams.

6. A live streaming platform

Once you have everything in place, you need to choose a live streaming platform that can grow and scale with your business requirements. The platform must have the essential features that you need whilst fitting within your budget.

When choosing a live streaming platform to broadcast live, you need to look for solutions that offer authorization, customization, privacy and security features. You can start with a social media live streaming platform, but if you are looking to brand your content and embed the videos on your own website, consider investing in a white label solution to enable all of this.

How can you make money streaming?

Considering the power of live streaming, now is the right time to focus on the power of live videos. Setting up live streaming is easy and it can bring in more money. Whether you are a business looking to promote your brand or improve you marketing efforts, or you’re interested in earning a bit of extra money on the side, monetizing live videos is an excellent idea.

Let’s look into how to monetize your live stream videos so you can start earning today.

1. Run advertisements

According to the Interactive Advertising Bureau, over 67% of users across the globe would rather choose for an advertisement-based, but free, watching experience than pay a subscription fee. Ad-based live streaming monetization is one of the easy ones to set up and it is a clear winning business model.

Facebook, for one, makes it easy to incorporate ads into your in-stream video.

2. Subscriptions

If you choose not to run ads, consider subscriptions. The subscription-based live streaming model is one of the popular revenue models out there. The most straightforward way is to hide your live content behind a paywall. That means your audience pays a regular (e.g. monthly) fee to be able to view your live streams. Once they pay, they get an entire month of unlimited viewing and access to your content library.

Another option is to offer most of your live streaming content for free, as a taster, and monetize just your premium content.

3. Ask for donations

Donations are another way you can make money streaming your videos. Once you have built a loyal follower base, your fans would be willing to support your creative efforts through donations. That is where the concept of donations and crowdfunding becomes important. Some live streaming platforms allow followers to make donations to their favorite live streaming which is an attractive option.

4. Pay per view

Pay per view is a straightforward revenue generation method where you charge your viewers to watch your live broadcasts. It works just like traditional tickets where people pay a one-time fee to access a show once. But if you want to compel your viewers to pay for your live streaming when there are so many free options, you will need to have quality content. It won’t work if you offer your users average content that they can get elsewhere for free.

5. Get sponsorships

Sponsorships are again straightforward where a user pays to promote their products and services during their live broadcasts. To make your ads compete effectively against adBlocks, you need to include a personal touch in your ads to make them more dynamic than traditional ads. Once you establish yourself in the market, brands will come in search of you. Or else you can also sing up in online services like Youtube’s Famebit where you can connect with brands for sponsorships.

When it comes to the best monetization model, there is no best model. All the different ways to make money from streaming that we have discussed come with their own advantages and disadvantages, and some will suit your needs more than others.

Implementing multiple revenue streams is always the best choice. For example, you could combine ad-based revenue models with subscriptions and sponsorships.


Once a live stream is over, that doesn’t mean your work is done. Check the metrics and analytics and look at where you got the highest viewership and engagement. How could you have tweaked the set up to enhance reach and viewership? Find the results and apply them in your next live steam.

Remember that a live stream event does not need to be a huge production for it to be a professional and successful one. The only thing you need to do is to take advantage of the immediacy and intimacy that live streaming brings.


About the author: Amanda Smith is a marketing consultant at StreamHash, with expertise in strategies to engage customers and improve business opportunities

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The U.S. Just Undercut Its Mission to Support Internet Freedom Worldwide

The U.S. Just Undercut Its Mission to Support Internet Freedom Worldwide

The U.S. government program may not be a household name, but it helps people fight authoritarian repression and protect themselves from extremist attacks.

Pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong on June 12.

Anthony Wallace/Getty Images

Last November, I flew to Taipei and checked into a hotel for a two-day gathering of roughly 150 activists, security researchers, and software developers from all over the world committed to helping people use technology to fight authoritarian repression and protect themselves from extremist attacks.

Taiwan’s digital minister, Audrey Tang, a hacker and open-source software developer herself, opened the conference with a speech about how citizens can use technology to advance democracy. Her audience included Tibetan and Uighur exiles who are working to help members of their communities evade arrest—or worse. People are risking their lives to share information with the outside world about events on the ground, and to disseminate facts inside China to counter the Communist Party’s official narrative.

The Taipei conference was organized by the Open Technology Fund, an independent nonprofit grantee of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which also funds Voice of America, Radio Free Asia, Radio Free Europe, and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks. Now a political shake-up at USAGM threatens OTF’s approach to technology development, as well as its vital support for vulnerable communities who use the technology to help them stay safe.

OTF’s chief executive, Libby Liu, offered her resignation on June 13, a week after Trump administration appointee Michael Pack was confirmed by the Senate as the agency’s new chief executive. Then on June 17 she was officially fired along with the heads of other USAGM grantee organizations. Trump’s former adviser and strategist Steve Bannon recently told the Washington Post that he had recommended Pack for the job because USAGM’s organizations were not sufficiently “on point” with the Trump administration, especially its hard-line stance against the Chinese Communist Party. Being tough on China in both words and deeds is widely reported to be the cornerstone of Trump’s reelection strategy.

A few days before Pack fired Liu, a guest on Steve Bannon’s War Room radio show denounced her. “She should be fired immediately if we want to tear down the firewall,” said Michael Horowitz, a longtime religious freedom advocate with close ties both to the Christian right and to Falun Gong, a religious organization that is banned by the Chinese Communist Party as an “evil cult.” It appears that lobbying by Horowitz and other allies in Washington factored into the decision to fire Liu, and that the same people are part of a lobbying coalition to influence OTF’s future. That’s troubling. Since at least 2009, Horowitz has been a strident advocate on Capitol Hill and in the media for government funding of software designed to circumvent internet censorship known as China’s “great firewall” designed by members of Falun Gong, such as Freegate and Ultrasurf. Both tools have been listed in letters by organizations and coalitions that Horowitz is close to. They are demanding that most of the funds earmarked by Congress to OTF as well as the State Department to support internet freedom should be redirected to these and two other organizations that provide circumvention software, instead of supporting a broader set of grantees and programs whose purpose is to advance internet freedom globally. (Full disclosure: I am founding director of New America’s Ranking Digital Rights program, which since 2016 has received funding from the U.S. State Department’s Internet Freedom program; we have also hosted several OTF-funded research fellows. New America is a partner with Slate and Arizona State University in Future Tense.)

Funding Falun Gong tools would be a good way to reward political loyalty: Since 2016 the Falun Gong–affiliated Epoch Times has become an enthusiastic member of Trump’s social media cheerleading squad. But if the objective is actually to undermine the Chinese Communist Party, firing OTF’s top leadership with the intent to change the organization’s funding scope and strategy makes little sense. To anybody with knowledge of OTF’s programs and community, it is clear that a radical overhaul of OTF’s funding strategy would be a win for the CCP.

The agenda at the Taipei conference included a breakout session on how to design effective digital security training programs for civil society under threat. There were technical discussions of how internet censorship is evolving in different countries, and how software that people can use to circumvent censorship also needs to evolve as censors get more sophisticated. Several sessions brought together activists who work daily to counter Chinese government repression. One group presented new research on mass surveillance in Xinjiang. Another focused on digital security concerns of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters. Yet another working group centered on efforts in Taiwan to counter disinformation campaigns that are part of the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to skew the island’s elections.

“It has taken so long to build and support a community who trust each other in situations that can be life-threatening,” Libby Liu told me. Before taking on her current role, Liu learned the value of censorship circumvention technology as head of Radio Free Asia, which started to support the development of circumvention tools after its website was blocked in China more than 20 years ago. Since 2012, OTF, which she launched, has been working to advance internet freedom in repressive environments, funding a wide range of research and software projects. OTF incubated the secure chat app Signal, used widely by protesters, political campaigns, and diplomats. Signal’s underlying open-source technology was incorporated into many other applications including WhatsApp, now owned by Facebook with 2 billion users.

Why should this bizarre fight over government funding, with its complicated cast of characters, matter to anybody outside the Washington Beltway? OTF has a responsibility to spend U.S. taxpayer money on technologies that have been vetted for security and effectiveness. Freegate and Ultrasurf, the Falun Gong–controlled tools championed by lobbyists, use closed-source, proprietary technology instead of open-source code that can be examined independently and have resisted the type of security audits that OTF requires of any software it supports. This is not a frivolous requirement when the lives of activists are at stake.

OTF’s annual budget of under $10 million may seem like peanuts in the face of what a major government invests in surveillance systems, let alone what the Chinese government spends to block its people from accessing forbidden content published outside the country’s “great firewall.” But a small amount of seed money can help get a project with no commercial viability off the ground, and targeted support can give activists an advantage at critical moments in time.

Take Hong Kong. OTF’s president, Laura Cunningham, who along with other leaders of USAGM organizations is suing to be reinstated, says that before she was fired, she and her colleagues were preparing to fund new Hong Kong–focused programs. The Chinese government has announced a new draconian national security law for Hong Kong, opening the door to extend China’s surveillance and censorship regime into the territory, which had been allowed until now to keep its own separate legal and commercial regime under a “one country, two systems” policy. “We have a very small window to work with civil society there to provide them with the technology and training they need,” she said. “It’s going to be 10 times harder to do this work once Hong Kong is behind a firewall.” When she and other USAGM leaders were fired, Pack initially froze all new grants, programs, or hiring for all USAGM organizations. The freeze was lifted on Friday as reports emerged that the administration was effectively denying critical funds to Hong Kong’s protest movement.

The Falun Gong circumvention tools won’t help Hong Kong’s protesters much. While internet censorship is expected to be a concern in Hong Kong’s near future, right now the urgent threat is China’s sophisticated surveillance technology, turbocharged by facial recognition programs and other pattern-recognition artificial intelligence, enabling authorities to track and identify activists, in turn making it possible to charge people under the new law, extradite them, and incarcerate them in mainland Chinese prisons. OTF support for countersurveillance technology and training could help give them a fighting chance.

“Freedom in China is not simple,” writes Nathan Freitas, who works with Tibetan communities through the Guardian Project and the Tibet Action Institute, and who advises OTF grantee TibCERT, an organization that supports the Tibetan community’s digital security needs. “To empower those that seek it, you need many tools, from a global toolbox, to fight on many fronts.” People need tools to securely capture, store, and transmit evidence of government abuse of power. Tibetan exiles need training and assistance to fight sophisticated Chinese government hacking of their computer systems, devices, and apps. In Xinjiang, Uighurs need help taking countermeasures to protect themselves after being forced to install government tracking apps on their cellphones. The Chinese government is also using apps operated by homegrown companies like Tencent’s WeChat to spy upon, censor, and intimidate Chinese students and professionals all over the world.

OTF supports a community of researchers, trainers, and developers to help civil society address all of these threats. Their open research, computer code, and security training techniques are being used around the world by all sorts of people. They are helping everybody everywhere who dares to speak truth to power. They make it possible for us to learn how to protect ourselves when we challenge extremists who threaten the rights of minorities or vulnerable groups. Their work must be allowed to continue. To do otherwise will be a gift to the Chinese Communist Party and autocrats around the world.

Future Tense
is a partnership of
New America, and
Arizona State University
that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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Donna Auguste #ShapeTheWorld @INWED1919 #INWED20

Donna Auguste #ShapeTheWorld @INWED1919 #INWED20

In honor of International Women in Engineering Day 2020, we celebrate the impressive career of Donna Auguste. From electrical engineering student facing obstacles at every turn, to CEO of a of a multi-million dollar company and head of a community-focused philanthropic organization, Donna Auguste has accomplished so much. Check out this interview with Donna Auguste from the National Center for Women & Information Technology.

Donna Auguste founded Freshwater Software, Inc. in 1996 to provide companies with tools that would help them monitor and enhance their presence on the Internet. She served as CEO of Freshwater until she sold it in 2000 for $147 million. She went on to found the Leave a Little Room Foundation, LLC, a philanthropic organization that helps to provide housing, electricity, and vaccinations to poor communities around the world. Even as a young girl Donna’s interest in technology and engineering was clear; she used to take apart household appliances just to see how they worked. With support from her family she attended the University of California at Berkeley, where some male students refused to work with her on project teams and one professor told her that she had been allowed into Berkeley only because the admissions standards had been waived. However, Donna earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and computer science from Cal and went on to become the first African American woman in the PhD program at Carnegie Mellon University.

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From Recycling Bottles For Cash To Tech Ceo: Meet The Latinx Founder Building A $100 Million Tech Hub In California’s Gritty Central Valley

From Recycling Bottles For Cash To Tech Ceo: Meet The Latinx Founder Building A $100 Million Tech Hub In California’s Gritty Central Valley

The first in her family to go to college, Irma Olguin returned home to Fresno intent on using her skills to uplift her community. Her Bitwise Industries has since landed $27 million in venture funding and trained 4,500 workers to code.

Fresno, California, is not where you’d expect to find a startup like Bitwise Industries, which trains tech workers, develops software and invests in tech-friendly real estate. It has $27 million in venture capital backing, a valuation of $100 million and 2019 revenue Forbes estimates at $20 million. “You could argue that Fresno is one of America’s most broken cities,” says cofounder Irma Olguin Jr., 39. “We have four of the ten poorest zip codes and one in four people live below the poverty line.”

Olguin is determined to change those statistics. Her own life story is a testament to beating the odds. A third-generation Mexican American, she is the granddaughter and daughter of field laborers and the first in her family to go to college. She self-identifies as queer and stands all of 5 feet tall, with hair dyed pink at the tips. Most days she wears jeans and T-shirts. 

She earned a full scholarship to attend the University of Toledo but to save enough for her $78 Greyhound ticket to Ohio each fall, she spent summers working fast-food jobs and collecting bottles and cans that she recycled for $1.25 a pound. In college, she fell in love with computer science and engineering and earned a joint degree in 2004. Though she had leads on tech jobs in the Midwest, she wanted to bring her training home and try to start a venture that would boost Fresno’s economy. 

Back in California, she spent a half-dozen years working a series of jobs, including as a public high school computer programming teacher and as a network technician for a city school district. In the meantime, she was working on a plan to make coding instruction available to disadvantaged members of the community and to build a venture that would create tech jobs in Fresno.

In 2010, she started a pitch competition called 59DaysofCode, which gives cash grants of as much as $15,000 and connects startups to local seed investors. To date, 25 ventures have grown out of the annual event, including QuiqLabs, a Web development company that runs a biweekly minority mentorship group for middle and high school students. (Three years ago, she moved into a consulting role.)

Jake Soberal, co-CEO and cofounder of Bitwise Industries.

Bitwise Industries

For legal help, she hired fellow Fresno native and intellectual property lawyer Jake Soberal, now 35, in 2010. Olguin and Soberal shared their frustrations over the limited career prospects in their hometown, and they talked about solutions. “Teaching people to code, taking folks from a story of poverty and seeing if they could enter into the technology industry, that was the foundational pillar for Bitwise,” says Olguin. 

They started working together in 2012, and a year later, they launched Geekwise Academy, the coding and tech skills boot camp arm of Bitwise in downtown Fresno. It offers face-to-face courses in programming languages like HTML and JavaScript, as well as classes in digital marketing, entrepreneurship and Salesforce cloud computing skills. 

Though Geekwise moved all its courses online in March when California issued a stay-at-home order in response to the coronavirus pandemic, 700 students signed up for classes this spring, double the number in spring 2019. For the 30% to 40% of students with no computers or broadband access at home, Geekwise has scrambled to provide loaner laptops and raise money to help pay for internet service.

“Being queer and being able to say that out loud is really the most empowering part of my life,” says Olguin, who shares tattoos with nine members of her Bitwise team.

Gabriela Hasbun for Forbes

Each Geekwise course costs $250, and most students take a total of six to prepare for an entry-level job. Roughly 30% are individuals who sign up and pay on their own. The rest get their tuition covered by government job training programs, schools and social service organizations, including eight Central Valley school districts and the Fresno County Department of Social Services. Private companies like Google also contract with Geekwise. The boot camp’s 4,500 graduates include veterans and people with criminal records. Bitwise has hired dozens of Geekwise alumni.

Jennifer Lewis, 48, says Geekwise gave her the confidence to rejoin the workforce after a three-year stint in the army that left her with debilitating neurological damage. “I hadn’t worked since 2008 and honestly didn’t think I ever would,” she says. In 2019, she took a 16-week accelerated course in which she learned HTML, CSS and JavaScript. Geekwise’s scholarship fund covered 80% of the $1,700 course fee and local community organizations paid for the rest. She now works in personnel for OnwardUS, a Web-based nonprofit cofounded by Bitwise in April. It connects people affected by the pandemic with resources like emergency services, skills training and job listings. 

After serving time in prison for burglary, Miguel Hernandez, 22, was directed to Geekwise in 2019 through Workforce Connection, a career program funded by local government. It paid the $500 tuition for a 12-week Salesforce certification course. He’s now working in Bitwise’s marketing department, where he uses what he learned in his Geekwise course to track the time customers spend on Bitwise’s social media links and create targeted ads. 

To boost the hiring pipeline for Geekwise alumni, Olguin and Soberal started a software development division called Shift3 Technologies. It builds apps and custom programs for small and medium-sized businesses. A quarter of Shift3’s 100 employees are Geekwise alumni. Olguin is proud that half of Shift3’s employees are female, half are from underrepresented ethnic and racial groups and a fifth are first-generation Americans. She says 60% of Bitwise’s revenue comes from Shift3.

Bitwise owns 250,000 square feet in downtown Fresno, including the Bitwise Hive.

bitwise industries

Bitwise’s third business invests in commercial real estate. Olguin and Soberal initially raised $500,000 from investors to buy a 50,000-square-foot building in downtown Fresno that had been empty for 60 years since its last incarnation as a car dealership. The rehabbed building, named Bitwise South Stadium, now has three floors of office space, a coffee shop and a 200-seat theater. Altogether Bitwise owns 250,000 square feet in downtown Fresno, including a massive brick structure that dates back to 1918. Originally designed as a cold storage facility, Bitwise bought it last year and is investing more than $10 million to create retail, restaurant and office space. 

Two years ago, Olguin and Soberal decided they wanted to expand Bitwise beyond Fresno. They started pitching venture firms, including Kapor Capital, an Oakland, California, fund run by Lotus software founder Mitchell Kapor. The fund invests in tech startups with a social impact mission, which made Bitwise a good fit. But at first, Kapor ignored Olguin’s emails. “I thought, what could possibly be going on in Fresno?” he says. Then, in January 2019, he made the three-hour trip for an in-person visit and agreed to lead a $27 million funding round that included New Voices Fund, run by African American beauty entrepreneur Richelieu Dennis

“They’ve created a holistic model of all these moving parts that work together synergistically,” says Kapor, who sits on Bitwise’s board. “They have a deep sense of the lived experiences of the folks that they’re serving and that’s embedded in everything they do.” 

Before the pandemic hit, Olguin and Soberal hosted monthly tech networking events such as pizza parties, art shows and a speaker series at Fresno’s 4,000-seat Saroyan Theater that kicked off with Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak.

In the good old prepandemic days: Most Geekwise students, who range in age from 7 to 70, take evening classes.

bitwise industries

The lockdown has strained the real estate business. Olguin says that 70% of the staffers who work for Bitwise’s 200 tenants are telecommuting and her rental income has fallen 20% to 30% since it took effect. One of her larger tenants, newspaper publisher McClatchy, filed for bankruptcy in May but Olguin says the company is still paying rent. Building workers wear gloves and masks and maintain a 6-foot distance from one another, and Bitwise provides antibacterial wipes and hand sanitizer at every entry point.

Olguin says she believes the real estate business will come back “with a vengeance” once the lockdown has lifted. “People want community—they want hustle-and-bustle,” she says. 

Olguin and Soberal are sticking with their prepandemic plan to double their real estate holdings by the end of 2020, and they’re slated to open commercial spaces in Bakersfield and Merced, California, in the first quarter of 2021. 

Even if the real estate business is slow to recover, Geekwise and Shift3 are in growth mode and planning to hire 70 staffers by year-end. 

Olguin is determined to succeed. “We’ve found a fundamentally different way to rebuild American cities, especially at a time when folks are looking around and saying, ‘What do we do with our economy?’” she says.  “We think we have the answer to that.”


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Technology and innovation: Building the superhuman agent

Technology and innovation: Building the superhuman agent

Researchers, academics, and innovative organizations have produced a seemingly never-ending wave of tech-based breakthroughs that keep resetting the bar for customer care. The use cases for artificial intelligence, automation, and analytics in the contact center are increasingly expanding, making these technologies fixtures in virtually every executive boardroom discussion.

Many companies are implementing targeted digital technologies in their contact centers. At the heart of this approach is embedding the right tools in the contact center to create impact: routing calls to the agents best equipped to handle them and ensuring that agents can focus on human interaction and show empathy. The recent transition to remote working adds another category of digital tools to consider (see sidebar, “Virtual workforce: Choosing effective solutions to improve productivity”). These cutting-edge technologies can help agents investigate customer issues and solve queries efficiently while capturing lessons to continuously improve.

Weaving all of these technologies together to support customer engagement is tremendously complex, and the wide array of available tools further clouds the path forward. Best-in-class organizations are differentiating themselves by taking a holistic view on how to improve the user experience and then selecting the technology that can deliver specific capabilities. Collectively, these applications and use cases represent a future state, in which technology is woven into operations to support human agents at every step.

The contact center agent of the future

Technological advancement is the key to enabling personalized assistance for each customer—the ‘care of one.’ This concept is based on data collected before, during, and after an interaction and requires the aggregation and use of data across channels, journey flows, and systems. Both humans and technology are needed to provide personalized customer care. In the coming years, technology won’t completely replace humans but rather facilitate and support intense human-machine interaction and collaboration.

For example, each contact center agent could be supported by a virtual agent-assistant, a behind-the-scenes bot that actively supports the conversation. This intelligent bot, powered by natural language processing (NLP) and next-generation machine-learning techniques, will be quietly monitoring every call or chat and equipping the agent with personalized advice: What are the customer’s intent and past actions? What is the customer feeling? What is the best next action? What are the most relevant insights and guidance from our knowledge management system? By supplying information from different systems and handling administrative tasks, these technologies will free up agents to fully focus on applying judgment, solving problems with creativity, and creating a connection with the customer.

The road to enablement

Despite daily advances in computing power, algorithms, and data volume, the sheer size and complexity of incorporating these technologies into the contact center mean that it will take time to achieve this future state. In the near term, organizations can start capturing value by harnessing the full functionality of existing technology and redirecting resources to focus attention on the care of one. The recent proliferation of digital customer care capabilities—for example, digital self-service tools such as apps and chatbots, interactive voice response (IVR) systems, NLP, real-time coaching, and augmented reality—makes it possible for companies and agents to adopt the care-of-one mindset without sacrificing cost and revenue targets. We highlight how specific technologies can be applied before, during, and after the call to improve agent performance.

Before the contact

Live touchpoints with customers—such as call, chat, or messaging—will always be important, but those conversations are most effective when agents can focus on complex interactions. To ensure that agents concentrate on the highest-value voice interactions, customer care leaders should first implement auto-response and self-service options to handle the most frequent, transactional interactions.

Quickly address root causes

When trying to address an issue, 66 percent of customers begin with self-service before reaching out to an agent or virtual agent. Organizations should provide their customers with the technology to solve their problems via continuous updates of self-service channels such as the web knowledge base, FAQs, community forums, apps, and websites. Advanced analytics, machine learning, and speech and text analytics can be used to dynamically analyze large volumes of contacts and generate insights about contact drivers, self-service leakage, repeated interaction bursts, and channel switching. Companies can then use these insights to efficiently update self-service information and functionality.

Reach out before customers do

Proactive conversational AI platforms can resolve requests before the customer even feels the need to reach out. Modern solutions integrated with various data systems can analyze large quantities of internal and external data and identify triggers to start proactive and personalized conversations through a customer’s preferred channels. For example, a leading telco was able to eliminate 50 percent of unnecessary service calls and inbound calls related to repairs by using robotics to proactively contact customers and resolve issues as soon as remote monitoring detected a malfunction.

Deflect with cognitive agents

Two-thirds of customers believe service through online channels and mobile devices should be faster, more intuitive, and better able to serve their needs.

Organizations should seize the opportunity with improved front-end robotics or “virtual agents” to handle repetitive, transactional requests as well as to guide customers through a logical menu of topics and intentions to address issues. Companies that have incorporated such technologies are seeing significant returns: in fact, effectively deploying conversational AI can create a twofold improvement in customer experience; reduce cost to serve by 15 to 20 percent; improve churn, upsell, and acquisition by 10 to 15 percent; and result in a fourfold increase in employee productivity.

During the call

Even though the industry is rapidly evolving to prioritize digital modes of communication, the majority of customer respondents still prefer to use voice channels to resolve more complex issues. Retaining the human element and striking the right balance between human and digital customer service will lead to more satisfied customers. To increase effficiency and overall service quality, top organizations are enabling agents to focus their entire attention on value-added tasks while optimizing costs.

Match ‘alike’ personalities

Instead of assigning customers to agents automatically or through simple rules, organizations are using advanced analytics and machine learning to route calls. Modern techniques draw on data about individual callers (for example, from external databases and internal CRM data) and agents (such as past performance and call history) to match calls with the best-suited agent. This approach results in more successful interactions, improved agent performance, and, ultimately, better call outcomes.

Know your customers

Knowing a customer’s history is no longer a competitive advantage, but a must for organizations that want to keep their customers satisfied. More than three-quarters of customers expect a service representative to be familiar with them, the product, and their service history and information.

Next-generation agent desktops and knowledge management systems start by combining multiple communication channels (for example, web chat, email, and SMS) with internal and external customer databases into one simplistic view. Organizations then layer in AI-enabled customer analytics, suggestions for next best actions, recommendation engines, product and offer analytics, conversation profiling, and risk identification. A single portal provides all the information and context that agents need to provide fast service and ensure smooth cross-channel transitions.

Boost emotional connection in the moment

People skills have never been more critical for agents. With robotic and cognitive technologies handling simple queries, the agent should focus exclusively on consultative conversations with the customer. To support these interactions, many organizations are using real-time coaching and training tools powered by deep learning and behavioral science. Such tools measure hundreds of quantitative and qualitative metrics in real time—tone of voice, speed, pauses, volume, keywords, compassion, and more. AI analyzes the conversation and nudges the agent on screen with recommendations if it detects an issue. For example, the AI coach may suggest that the agent show more empathy or speak at a different speed to build a better connection. This support can help agents come across as more confident and empathetic, which in turn can improve customer experience, sales, and retention. According to research, while it’s impossible to control the customer’s actions, a fully engaged phone professional who listens and expresses a genuine interest in resolving the situation will foster the type of partnership with customers that is necessary to ensure more engaging and successful conversations.

See what your customers see

Computer-vision AI and augmented-reality software are transforming the contact center’s approach to customer care. Modern organizations are applying the latest algorithm innovations and overlaying information from the customer’s smartphone screen directly to the agent’s desktop.

This software empowers agents by providing additional visual guidance to improve the accuracy of real-time decisions, support, and recommendations.

After the call

Once a call is completed, agents often have a few minutes of downtime that they typically spend on administrative tasks. However, contact centers could improve efficiency by implementing back-end robotics to handle simple tasks, freeing agents to spend more time enhancing their skills through quick, personalized training sessions.

Monitor and optimize agent performance

The biggest cultural and organizational changes of next-generation performance management will be based on personalized, real-time coaching with near-constant feedback for agents. Modern performance management operating systems use AI and NLP to visualize role-based data, identify improvement areas, and continuously monitor performance at the individual and team levels. These insights are used to tailor coaching and training to an agent’s personality, skills, and motivation. Next-generation systems also include personalized targets for agents, gamification to spur healthy competition, and self-learning recommendation engines. Collectively, these tools motivate and train agents while they wait for their next call.

Understand your back-end operations

Several capabilities, such as process discovery or process mining, offer process insights that can reduce the burden on agents and improve performance and overall customer service by quickly identifying nonintuitive opportunities for digitization and automation within contact centers. For example, managers can use computer-vision applications to determine how much time agents spend on specific activities and to untangle the granular workflow of tasks, activities, and events that agents perform. Who is responsible for high-priority processes? Are people engaged and productive? What are the sources of lost productivity? These applications can answer all of these questions and others.

Let robotic process automation (RPA) tools handle all non-value-added back-office tasks

Automation can replicate human work in a cost-efficient way by handling repetitive processes and tasks through virtual rule-based robots. Data integration, manipulation, and analysis can be facilitated by converting unstructured analog data flows into structured digital flows. This exercise can improve customer experience by enhancing the quantity and quality of data inputs, which accelerate analytics.

Selecting the right technology to support agents

Creating superhuman agents requires a huge number of technology solutions. This presents a key challenge for organizations intent on achieving this vision. Each tool provides only a small part of the solution, many functionalities overlap, and tools must be integrated and able to exchange data. Customer care organizations should select a few tools as a starting point and prioritize implementation based on each tool’s contribution to well-defined business goals. The following five-step process has proved effective for a range of customer care organizations:

  1. Define business success in hard numbers. Organizations should select key performance indicators (KPIs) that are most relevant to their business, such as cost to serve (CtS). Executives can set ambitious goals, but they must be sure to focus on metrics that can actually influence business outcomes.
  2. Build a driver tree to highlight which factors influence those KPIs. For example, companies can segment CtS into front-office, back-office, IT, and nonpersonnel activities. These drivers can in turn be broken down further into metrics such as average handle time.
  3. Simulate different interventions by applying them to the driver tree and determine which changes will have the greatest impact. For example, if average handle time is found to be a key driver, then an optimized agent workspace, knowledge management tools, and other support can have a large impact on overall success and should be prioritized.
  4. Scan the market to stay current on cutting-edge tools—but don’t let the latest products shape strategy. Instead, companies should define their problem as described above and then seek out solutions.
  5. Track business KPIs before, during, and after implementation of the prioritized tools. This is critical to measure the impact of investments.

Ushering in the era of superhuman agents won’t be automatic or easy: a comprehensive solution has too many moving parts. For companies that get it right, the benefits will be well worth the investment. And, at a time when the world is reeling from the pandemic, customer care volumes have spiked, and remote working has suddenly become standard practice for contact centers, organizations have a unique opportunity to make significant progress.

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Business Highlights

Business Highlights


Luxury fashion challenged to confront racist attitudes

MILAN (AP) — Luxury fashion got a whole lot of blowback when the brands lined up social media posts to show solidarity with Black Lives Matters protests. U.S. actor Tommy Dorfman has called Salvatore Ferragamo out for a “homophobic and racist work environment” and transgender model and actress Munroe Bergdorf accused L’Oreal of hypocrisy for firing her three years ago when she used strong language to complain about racism. Global fashion brands have been challenged in the past to become more racially inclusive. But the U.S protests against systemic racism are increasingly targeting the fashion world and its role as a cultural beacon. Influencers and brand ambassadors now feel emboldened to speak out about behind-the-scenes bad behavior.


Wirecard scandal: Missing billions likely don’t exist

BERLIN (AP) — German payment service provider Wirecard says it has concluded that 1.9 billion euros ($2.1 billion) which were supposed to be held in two accounts probably don’t exist, deepening troubles that last week prompted the resignation of its chief executive. Wirecard was once regarded as a star of the growing financial technology sector, but its shares have fallen sharply after the company became the subject of reports about accounting irregularities. ___

Stocks end with solid gains after shaking off a choppy start

NEW YORK (AP) — Stocks are closing higher on Wall Street Monday after shaking off a choppy start. The S&P 500 added 0.6% after sliding as much as 0.6% in the early going. The initial drop followed weakness overseas as the global tally of infections approaches 9 million. Technology companies led the way, outweighing losses in health care and other sectors. Many market watchers think the market’s recent surge is out of whack with the weak state of the economy. The price of oil rose, settling above $40 a barrel for the first time since early March, before the economy all but shut down due to the outbreak.


Existing home sale plunge 9.7% in 3rd straight monthly drop

WASHINGTON (AP) — US existing home sales plunged 9.7% in May. It was the third straight monthly decline and further evidence of the harm the virus pandemic has done to the housing market. The National Association of Realtors said Monday that the May decline pushed sales down to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 3.91 million, the slowest pace since a home buyers tax credit expired in October 2010. Sales were down in all parts of the country with the biggest decline coming in the Northeast.


Supreme Court rules SEC can recoup money in fraud cases

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court has preserved an important tool used by securities regulators to recoup ill-gotten gains in fraud cases. The justices said by an 8-1 vote Monday that the Securities and Exchange Commission can seek to recover the money through a process called disgorgement. Last year, the SEC obtained $3.2 billion in repayment of profits from people who have been found to violate securities law. Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote for the court that the award must be limited to no more than “a wrongdoer’s net profits.” Justice Clarence Thomas dissented.


Tariffs hit American whiskey producers hard in Europe

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — A new report says American whiskey distillers have watched more than $300 million in export revenues evaporate since a trade dispute broke out between the U.S. and European Union. Exports of American whiskey to the EU have fallen 33% since the EU started a retaliatory tariff on those products two years ago. That’s according to a report issued Monday by the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. American whiskeys include bourbon, Tennessee whiskey and rye whiskey. The EU targeted American whiskey and other U.S. products in response to President Donald Trump’s decision to impose tariffs on European steel and aluminum.


Apple previews new iPhone software, changes to Mac chips

CUPERTINO, Calif. (AP) — Apple has provided a glimpse at upcoming software changes designed to make the iPhone even easier to use and has also announced a long-anticipated shift to a new type of chip to power its line of Mac computers. The preview of the next version of the iPhone’s operating system, known as iOS 14, highlighted Apple’s annual conference for computer programmers and mobile app makers. The event was delayed for three weeks due to the coronavirus pandemic. It took place in virtual form via a webcast from the company’s Cupertino, California, headquarters. The next iOS includes several features to make it easier to find and use popular apps, as well as new messaging features and privacy protections.


Watchdogs: Treasury too secretive on small business loans

NEW YORK (AP) — The Trump administration has relented to public pressure and pledged to provide more details about which small businesses received loans from a $600 billion-plus coronavirus aid program. But government watchdogs say even more transparency is needed to get an accurate picture of who was helped, and who was left out. Under pressure from Democratic lawmakers and government watchdogs, the Treasury Department and the Small Business Administration said Friday they would disclose the names of small business owners who received $150,000 or more in forgivable loans.


The S&P 500 gained 20.12 points, or 0.6%, to 3,117.86. The Dow Jones Industrial Average picked up 153.50 points, or 0.6%, to 26,024.96. The Nasdaq composite climbed 110.35 points, or 1.1%, to 10,056.47. The Russell 2000 index of smaller-company stocks added 14.89 points, or 1.1%, to 1,433.53.

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Aerospace Engineer Aisha Bowe Develops ‘Lingo’ Coding Kit For At-Home Learning

Aerospace Engineer Aisha Bowe Develops ‘Lingo’ Coding Kit For At-Home Learning

via AfroTech

“The idea of Lingo is to make technology accessible for all by introducing students to software, hardware and engineering concepts in a really easily approachable way,” said Bowe, who previously worked at NASA. “So, the focus is on the lesson and the excitement around building the backup sensor and less on some of the technology fundamentals, which will come later.”

Read more.

We are angry, frustrated, and in pain because of the violence and murder of Black people by the police because of racism. We are in the fight AGAINST RACISM. George Floyd was murdered, his life stolen. The Adafruit teams have specific actions we’ve done, are doing, and will do together as a company and culture. We are asking the Adafruit community to get involved and share what you are doing. The Adafruit teams will not settle for a hash tag, a Tweet, or an icon change. We will work on real change, and that requires real action and real work together. That is what we will do each day, each month, each year – we will hold ourselves accountable and publish our collective efforts, partnerships, activism, donations, openly and publicly. Our blog and social media platforms will be utilized in actionable ways. Join us and the anti-racist efforts working to end police brutality, reform the criminal justice system, and dismantle the many other forms of systemic racism at work in this country, read more @ adafruit.com/blacklivesmatter

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CircuitPython – The easiest way to program microcontrollers – CircuitPython.org

Maker Business — How 3M is able to ramp up production of N95 masks

Wearables — When wrecking acrylic is for the best

Electronics — Free Heatsink!

Python for Microcontrollers — Bluetooth, Adafruit Discord turns 3, and more! #Python #Adafruit #CircuitPython @circuitpython @micropython @ThePSF

Adafruit IoT Monthly — Cosmo Clock, Low Powered Widlife Camera, and more!

Microsoft MakeCode — Black Girls Code Virtual Camps

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Narrative Collapse

Narrative Collapse

“Upon this gifted age, in its dark hour,

Rains from the sky a meteoric shower

Of facts . . . they lie unquestioned, uncombined.

Wisdom enough to leech us of our ill

Is daily spun; but there exists no loom

To weave it into fabric”

— Edna St. Vincent Millay, Huntsman, What Quarry?

If we stop to think about the various technologies that structure our social lives, for better and for worse, we may fail to note one of our oldest and most reliable tools, one with which we are all familiar and which we deploy on a daily basis, so much so that we barely take notice of it. The technology I have in mind is the narrative form, otherwise known as story-telling, and I’m going to argue that this tool is getting glitchy.

I know. Describing narrative as a technology will seem like a stretch depending on how you define technology, which, as I’ve argued on a number of occasions, is a rather more complicated task than one might imagine before undertaking it. For what it’s worth, though, I am not alone in conceiving of narrative as a kind of technology.

“The primary purpose of narrative,” media scholar Katherine Hayles argued several years ago, “is to search for meaning,” which makes “narrative an essential technology for human beings, who can arguably be defined as meaning-­seeking animals.”

Hayles makes at least three distinct claims in that sentence, but let’s start by focusing on the idea that narrative is a technology. Of course, it is easy to see how various technologies shape the use of narrative—writing, the codex, film, etc.—but Hayles is claiming that the narrative form itself is a technology. To go along with this claim we need to grant, as I think we should, that the technological is not limited to material artifacts. It can include a variety of immaterial techniques that we might use to accomplish any number of tasks. Consider, for example, of one of our most discussed technologies of late, the algorithm. Yes, algorithms tend to operate in conjunction with complex and sophisticated machines and devices, but they are themselves simply processes or sets of rules to be applied to a particular problem or situation.

Narrative, too, is a deceptively simple technique deployed by the human mind in order to make sense of the world. That is not its only purpose, of course—it instructs, gives pleasure, aides memory, etc.—but it seems to me that this may be its most basic function. Narrative is a tool by which we extract (or impose, depending on your perspective) meaning from the chaotic flux of being in the world—the “big, blooming, buzzing confusion” newborns encounter in William James memorable line. In this way, it is, as Hayles suggests, essential. It would be hard to imagine how we could get on without it and still function in a recognizably human fashion.

Simply imagine trying to answer the questions “What happened?” or “Who are you?” without recourse to narrative. Regarding the latter question, it may be useful to remember Hannah Arendt’s distinction between what I am and who I am. Perhaps I can respond to the question “What am I?” without a story, but I don’t think I could do so to the more significant question “Who am I?”

Returning to Hayles, we might say that this because the question of who I am is a question of meaning rather than merely a question of fact, and, as she pointed out, the search for meaning is the primary purpose of narrative. Further, we are, as Hayles aptly put it, “meaning-seeking animals.” So critical is our desire for meaning that, tragically, it is not uncommon for human beings to sooner end their lives than go on living without a substantive experience of meaning.

One can find a similar line of thought in the work of the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, although he does not discuss narrative as a technology. Like Hayles, MacIntyre finds that being human is correlated to the mediations of narrative. “Man is in his actions and practice, as well as in his fictions,” MacIntyre argued, “essentially a story-telling animal.” MacIntyre also went so far as to suggest that “the unity of a human life is the unity of a narrative quest.” Moreover, he claimed, “I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’”

I am basically in agreement with both Hayles and Macintyre. Story-telling is a tool, or application if you like, and it is essential to the way human beings make their way in the world.

Narrative is our default sense-making technique, in part, because it reflects our fundamentally time-bound existence. We experience life as a succession of moments yielding a discernible past, present, and future. Likewise, while narratives can artfully play with the representation of time, they are typically structured in a manner that mirrors our experience. But narratives are not merely a chronological list of all events or happenings. They are selective and purposeful: events are included so as to yield or imply meaningful relationships, establishing not only what has happened but also why and with what significance.

There are all manner of narratives or stories, of course. Some of them are slapdash and of little consequence, the little story we tell when someone asks about our day, for example. Others are more complicated and significant, such as the story we might tell about how we fell in love. There are stories, too, with which we identify regarding our family history, our racial or ethnic background, our national identity, our political principles, and our religious convictions (or lack thereof). These stories amount to something like the larger fabric into which we weave the thread of our own biographies. They frame our sense of self, and, to some degree, they provide a template of sorts for how we ought to conduct ourselves, what we ought to value, and who we should aspire to be. This is what MacIntyre was getting at when he said that you can know what you are to do only if you also know what story or stories you are a part of.

Stories of this sort also act as a filter on reality. We never merely perceive the world, we interpret it. In fact, our perception is already interpretation. And the work of interpretation depends to no small degree on the stories that we have internalized about the world. So when we hear about this, that, or the other thing happening, we tend to fit the event into our paradigmatic stories. To be clear, I don’t think this is a bad thing. Honestly, I don’t see how it could be otherwise. Perhaps this is overstated, but it seems to me that our humanity is, in fact, wrapped up with this story-telling capacity.

To summarize, then: stories shape our identity, grant to us a sense of direction, and play an important role in our interpretation of the world.

All of that said, let’s consider how our reliance on narrative fares in the digital media environment.

Databases and Narratives

We’re presently living through what feels like a remarkably turbulent time. In fact, we might be tempted to think that ours is a uniquely chaotic moment. Of course, most of us know that human beings have lived through more chaotic, violent, and calamitous times than ours. What is novel in our experience isn’t the depth of the health crisis or the scale of the protests, the economic volatility, or the political instability. What is novel is the information ecosystem in which all of this and more is unfolding. Most of us now have far greater access to information about the world, and we are—arguably, I grant—exposed to a far wider array of competing narratives attempting, without notable success, to make sense of it all.

In short, it would appear that our basic sense-making technology, the narrative, is a bit glitchy, both failing to operate as we might expect and causing some issues of its own.

You won’t be surprised to learn that I think Marshall McLuhan can be helpful here. While many have found McLuhan’s aphorism “the medium is the message” confounding, McLuhan actually offered a rather straightforward explanation. “The ‘message’ of any medium or technology,” McLuhan wrote, “is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs.” “The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts,” McLuhan added, “but alter sense ratios or patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance.”

Digital media introduced a new scale, pace, and pattern to human communication, and, in this way, altered how the world is perceived. With regards to scale, we encounter an unprecedented amount of information about the world at large through digital media. With regards to pace, we encounter this information with previously unknown and unrelenting immediacy. And, with regards to pattern, we encounter it both in novel social contexts and in a form that bears greater resemblance to a database than a story.

I think that last point is under-appreciated and requires a bit of explanation. Let’s go back to Hayles for a moment as take a closer look at this distinction. The article by Hayles I cited above (link below) remains relatively obscure and its context was a debate in the digital humanities about the relationship between narratives and databases. In the article, she discusses the work of another media scholar, Lev Manovich, who, in her words,

“perceptively observes that for narrative, the syntagmatic [sequentially related] order of linear unfolding is actually present on the page, while the paradigmatic possibilities of alternative word choices are only virtually present. For databases, the reverse is true: the paradigmatic possibilities are actually present in the columns and the rows, while the syntagmatic progress of choices concatenated into linear sequences by SQL commands is only virtually present.”

In other words, when you read a narrative, for example, you are encountering the product of a series of choices that have already been made for you by the author out of a myriad of possibilities from the database of language. The countless other choices that were possible are present only to the imagination. You see the words the author chose, not the ones she could’ve chosen. You see the path marked out for you as a reader, not the multiple paths that were rejected. When you encounter a database, however, you see the opposite. You see the field of possibility and any number of paths through the database remain hypothetical and potential.

This may seem like an esoteric or trivially academic observation, but I think it presents us with an important insight into our media environment and may help us understand why our narrative technology is acting up.

When you or I read a book or an article, when we listen to someone telling us a story, when we watch a film or a show—in each case, and others like them, we are being led along a particular narrative path by those who have constructed the media artifact. They are telling us a story.

Something very different is happening when we’re online. [*Caveats below.] It’s not that we are literally presented with a relational database, but we are presented with what amounts to a loosely arranged set of data points whose significance and meaning has not been baked into the form itself. Moreover, I can make my way online with a high degree of independence relative to how I might make my way through an analog media artifact. Finally, consider how digital media transforms even the traditional media artifact itself into a kind of database. A movie, for example, is transformed into a series of snippets, clips, lines, gifs, etc., which float around independently of the whole. The digitized artifact is the artifact that has, for all intents and purposes, surrendered its integrity.

One effect of our digital media environment, then, is to immerse us in searchable databases of information rather than present us with comprehensive, integrated, and broadly compelling narratives.

I chose the words “comprehensive” and “compelling” deliberately, although I’m not wholly satisfied with either, so let me explain what I have in mind. I hope it is obvious that I’m not suggesting we no longer encounter narratives. On the contrary, narratives proliferate in the digital world. Rather, I’m suggesting that the database experience frames the encounter with narratives so that we experience narratives as just so many entries in a database of information. The narratives that we encounter thus fail to be comprehensive accounts of our experience or broadly compelling. Another way to think about a narrative’s compelling power would be to speak of it as being in some sense authoritative. (The etymological link between author and authority, via the Latin auctor, should not be lost on us.)

Let’s consider one more feature of the database/narrative distinction before exploring some of the implications. Database are tools for storing and sorting information: they are mnemonic technologies, one of their chief functions is to act as massive and relatively accessible external memories. This recalls Eric and Marshall McLuhan’s application of their tetrad of media effects (enhance, obsolesce, retrieve, reverse) to the computer. With regards to what the computer retrieves: “Perfect memory — total and exact.” You can quibble with the idea of it being “perfect” memory, but the point stands, I think.

Our digital databases are unparalleled memory machines. Narratives, too, can be understood as mnemonic devices. As most of us know from experience, we remember nothing quite so easily as a story. However, with the distinction between the actual and potential in mind, we might also say that narratives are instruments of forgetting. They select what is to be remembered, allowing us to discard the rest. Indeed, a narrative might be defined precisely by what it leaves out. When you tell the story of your day, think about how much of what you might possibly relay is left out of your telling. This, in part, is why Manovich argued that databases and narratives are “natural enemies.”

Alright, so let’s move on to what this may mean. N.B., from here on out, I’m going to use uppercase D, Database to refer to digital media environment taken as a rather messy whole. I’ll use uppercase N, Narrative to imply a traditional deference to and reliance on authoritative, comprehensive narratives.

I offer the following to you in loosely organized and underdeveloped form. Think of them as analytic gambits intended to prompt/provoke further thought and discussion. Take them for what they are worth, which, I hope, will be more than nothing.

Provisional Inventory of Consequences

  1. The Database tolerates, indeed encourages narratives, but it cannot sustain and actively discourages Narratives.

  2. All narratives generated from the Database are tenuous and subject to constant revision. They are but one possible path through the database. Everyone knows alternative paths are possible. We are all just pinning red string on the board to connect the data points.

  3. Narratives seek closure (the story must end). The Database is open-ended (it assimilates new data indefinitely). The Database resists the Narrative impulse to control and stabilize meaning.

  4. The inability to establish Narratives yields an experience of perpetual flux, unsettledness, instability. It amplifies a sense of disorder. Consequently, it can also yield the impulse to impose order by whatever means. Losing your Narrative is traumatic.

  5. The worst possible position to be in is that of believing you can still weave a Narrative to tame reality and generate consensus.

  6. Narrative is an unavoidably temporal technology; the Database is indifferent to time. The experience of Database-time is of an undifferentiated blob. Having trouble with the flow of time? Maybe it’s not just the pandemic. Maybe its because we live in the Database and in the Database ordinary time is irrelevant.

  7. The Database dramatically expands access to information, challenging the authority of even the most venerable professional weavers of Narrative. Official narratives are just one more datapoint, one more entry in the Database, one way among many of generating a path through the entries.

  8. Moreover, the imperative to weave Narratives under the pressures of virtual instantaneity results in the need to constantly update the Narrative, which, because this phenomenon also becomes part of the Database, undermines the plausibility of Narrative.

  9. The Database is blind to traditional categories such as credibility or trustworthiness. The Database is indifferent to truth. All entries in the Database have the same value, although they can be differently organized. This is confirmed by the mostly futile efforts of the Narrative-minded managers of the Database to artificially impose these categories through “fact-checking” notices, warning labels, blue checks, etc.

  10. In the post-Narrative age of the Database, we all assume responsibility for improvising our own, often tentative and fragile, narratives about both the world and ourselves. Because narrative is so critical to our sense of identity, however, we are tempted to zealously guard our narratives.

  11. The untamed memory that is characteristic of the Database undermines the traditional functions of Narrative. The Database cannot account for development across time. Redemption, for example, is a category that only makes sense in narrative terms. Only narrative can temporally relativize the meaning of words and deeds. The Database cannot render judgments of this sort. Every entry carries equal weight.

  12. Relatedly, the only way to manage memory in the Database, and thereby attempt to establish a N/narrative, is to delete entries altogether. Otherwise, your N/narrative could be upended at any moment by the unaccounted for entry.

  13. The rhetoric of persuasion in the Database amounts to one principle: repetition.

  14. Narratives may not be adequate for understanding the complex reality that confronts us, but they may nonetheless be necessary to get us to do act responsibly in the face of that reality. In other words, we’re now operating at a scale for which our most basic cognitive tool may no longer be adequate.

  15. Presently, many if not most of us are operating with Narrative assumptions, and we’re responding to the Database as if it were possible to reestablish the Narrative order within it.

[Narrative Collapse: An addendum.]

Yes, it is true that users can navigate their way creatively across traditional media objects, a la Michel de Certeau’s practices of everyday life, refusing the path laid out by the creators. And, it is also the case that what we are actually encountering most of the time on digital media is an interface that is mediating the database to us. It is also true that in such contexts our independence is, in fact, relative to the degree that it is algorithmically constituted and shaped by the affordances of the interface. These are important considerations and deserve the serious attention they have received. That said, for my purposes here, it is still the case that at the level of user experience, using the internet feels more like navigating across the open sea than driving along a paved road.

News and Resources

  • Preprint of Mike Annay’s “Making Up Political People: How social media create the ideals, definitions, and probabilities of political speech”:

    “This all matters because, although there is a great deal of smart conversation about how and why to regulate platforms, there does not seem to be as much deep thinking about what kind of public life platform regulations aim to create. Is the ideal public a rational, deliberative, truth-seeking one that Facebook and its fact-checkers seem to want? Is it a participatory one that is less concerned about truth and more concerned about the exchange of opinions? Is it an aggregation of responses to polls, surveys, and questionnaires? Is it an agonistic one that cultivates disagreement, and manages shared consequences, without ever thinking that anything like consensus is ever possible? In all likelihood, it is some combination of these, but it is well past time to create platform regulations that move beyond an almost exclusive focus on marketplace models of speech and deliberative ideals of the public, to messier and normatively complex images of the public interest.”

  • Annay’s article recalled some of what I articulated in this review of Siva Vaidhyanathan’s Anti-Social Media from late 2018. So, in case you missed it then, here it is:

    “Each chapter of Antisocial Media frames Facebook as a machine: ‘The Pleasure Machine,’ ‘The Attention Machine,’ ‘The Politics Machine,’ ‘The Disinformation Machine,’ and so on. The final point that we might draw from Aristotle, which the book implies but does not spell out, is that Facebook is also a moral formation machine. One answer to the question ‘What is Facebook for?’ is that it is for the formation of a particular kind of human being.”

  • “The bio-surveillance state: an emerging new normal in Asia”: Not the most important concern cited in the report, but I thought this worth highlighting:

    “Promises of technological solutions can lead to a phenomenon known as the ‘streetlight effect’, the tendency to search where it is easiest to look. Here, the ones missed out on are the poorer, less privileged communities who do not feature on the digital map.”

  • On a number of occasions over the last few years I’ve written about silence as an essential practice as we navigate the public sphere created by digital media. I’ve always felt uneasy about it because it is also clear that silence can at times be inexcusable. That said, I was glad to come across this brief and clarifying meditation on silence (via Robin Sloan, if I remember correctly):

    “It is important to recognize the different kinds of silence. There is silence that is imposed, the result of a power differential, and is an element of the perpetuation of harm [….] The second kind of silence is silence that comes from within and not without. It is a silence marked by discipline and stillness, and the breaking of this second silence is sometimes a matter of sadness even when it is done with purpose and care.”

  • Amazon has placed a one year moratorium on police use of its facial recognition product, Rekognition. IBM also steps away from facial recognition software, as does Microsoft. Relatedly, “Communities of color — particularly ones in low-income areas — often serve as testbeds for surveillance technology. And most of that equipment is funded by taxpayers and installed by police in those neighborhoods.”

  • On horse-powered boats: “Several different types of these amazing boats, which usually used teams of two or more horses as their “engine,” plied the waterways of North America from the 1790s until the late 1920s. The horse ferries were most plentiful more than 150 years ago, however, and consequently have been forgotten by many.” Indeed.


— Nicholas Carr recently posted a revised version of a portion of The Glass Cage, his 2014 book on automation. It’s worth your time. It opens with an exposition of Robert Frost’s “Mowing”:

“The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.”

There are mysteries in that line. Its power lies in its refusal to mean anything more or less than what it says. But it seems clear that what Frost is getting at, in the line and in the poem, is the centrality of action to both living and knowing. Only through work that brings us into the world do we approach a true understanding of existence, of “the fact.” It’s not an understanding that can be put into words. It can’t be made explicit. It’s nothing more than a whisper. To hear it, you need to get very near its source. Labor, whether of the body or the mind, is more than a way of getting things done. It’s a form of contemplation, a way of seeing the world face-to-face rather than through a glass. Action un-mediates perception, gets us close to the thing itself. It binds us to the earth, Frost implies, as love binds us to one another. The antithesis of transcendence, work puts us in our place.

— And here is Frost’s poem:

There was never a sound beside the wood but one,

And that was my long scythe whispering to the ground.

What was it it whispered? I knew not well myself;

Perhaps it was something about the heat of the sun,

Something, perhaps, about the lack of sound—

And that was why it whispered and did not speak.

It was no dream of the gift of idle hours,

Or easy gold at the hand of fay or elf:

Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak

To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows,

Not without feeble-pointed spikes of flowers

(Pale orchises), and scared a bright green snake.

The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.

My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make.

— All of this recalled the opening of Alexander Langlands’ Craeft: An Inquiry Into the Origins and True Meaning of Traditional Crafts:

“That summer the scythe became the tool of choice. Relieved of the rigmarole of fuelling, servicing and maintaining the strimmer, scything could be conducted on a whim, the scythe plucked from the toolshed and employed for an hour or two here and there. My technique improved. I became stronger and began to feel less exhausted at the end of a stint, and almost matched the time taken to do the same job with a strimmer. And the shape of the garden changed too; straight lines gave way to sweeping curves, and corners became rounded. Scythed twice that year, the variable stubble of my small meadow created and attractive environment for a variety of grasses and wild flowers, which in turn supported a host of different insects. As autumn reached for her golden crown, I realised that I’d taken a traditional way of doing something and had found that, on my terms, it was just as effective as the mechanically charged, petrol-powered methods of today.”

— Winslow Homer’s “The Veteran in a New Field” (1865):

The Conversation

One programming note for paid (sorry!) subscribers, the first thread in our Illich reading group will be posted this coming Monday, so be sure to look for that.

I’ve thought more than once of late about Thomas Nashe’s in “A Litany in Time of Plague,” which opens with “Adieu, farewell, earth’s bliss; / This world uncertain is.”

The world uncertain is—indeed. But I hope you are well, safe, and healthy. More importantly, may you have found your own way in these times to work for decency, equity, and justice. May we each find what Hannah Arendt somewhere called “a kind of laughing courage.” And please, stick with the masks.

Take care,


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HONG KONG (Reuters Breakingviews) – As the Covid-19 epidemic began to peak in Asia, Piyush Gupta tried to boost morale for his quarantined workforce. The chief executive of Singaporean bank DBS led his management team through a parody version of Gloria Gaynor’s disco breakup anthem “I Will Survive,” in which they sang off-key praises for their new remote working arrangements. “We grew strong,” one managing director howled into a wooden spoon. “We learned how to work from home!” 

Felix Hassebroek pretends to be a fireman, interrupting his mother Naomi as she works from home during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Brooklyn, New York, U.S., May 6, 2020. REUTERS/Caitlin Ochs

For the hundreds of millions of office workers forced to participate in the world’s biggest telecommuting experiment, whatever enthusiasm they may have had is wearing off. Faster networks and processing speeds smoothed the experience compared to prior efforts, but there are bigger issues for companies and their staffs to consider as they start thinking about a post-pandemic era. More than 80% of employees expect to return to the office in the next 12 to 18 months, according to a Xerox survey of corporate tech decision makers released in June. Over half of the companies polled plan to move to hybrid home and office models and will boost IT spending to support the transition.

There are plenty of wrinkles to iron out. In addition to a long list of software bugs and security holes uncovered by the surge in usage, the transition will demand changes to ways that workers are monitored, managed, encouraged and disciplined. Working from home, or WFH in the new social-media vernacular, presents a singular challenge to C-suites as they evaluate whether the change is boosting efficiency or wrecking morale – or both. It sets the stage for a fresh clash between labour and capital.

Businesses had little choice but to go remote as contagion rates shot upward in the first phase of the outbreak. In China alone, around 200 million people started working from home at the end of the Lunar New Year holiday in February, according to a McKinsey estimate. As spring sprung in North America, Facebook, Google and others told staff they could telework for the rest of the year. Most of Twitter’s 4,000 employees can now do so indefinitely.

Other bosses are dubious about workplaces being abandoned. One of them is Bruce Flatt, the CEO of Brookfield Asset Management, the Toronto-based investing titan that is parent company of one of the world’s biggest commercial property landlords. “It is ludicrous to think that companies will not return to offices,” he said at a Reuters Breakingviews event in June. “Anyone who says they’re not going to be in offices is naive about how company culture is built.”

Despite Flatt’s scepticism, investors are anticipating some big behavioural changes. For all its admitted security and political problems, Zoom Video Communications’ market value more than tripled this year to $70 billion, trading at more than 180 times forecast earnings. Shares of Atlassian, which makes project management tools, are up more than 50% year-to-date, far outpacing the Nasdaq Composite Index. Slack Technologies, operator of a cooperative workflow app, has posted a similar gain.

“Business is booming,” said David Gurle, CEO of Symphony, a Goldman Sachs-backed financial chat tool. In the first three months of the year, new user accounts grew by 40%, as much as in all of 2019. Voice messaging usage doubled, and the number of file attachments increased five times. In late April, the company rolled out an encrypted virtual meeting room to satisfy compliance officers, many of whom want video to be recorded and logged as text is now. That in turn will drive yet more demand for storage capacity. Early in the outbreak, e-commerce giant Alibaba told Breakingviews it had already added 100,000 new servers to handle the load, as millions of employees and students began using its DingTalk app to communicate.

Wayne Kurtzman, research director at IDC, projects that the collaborative software market alone will grow at over 12% a year to be worth nearly $27 billion by 2023 – driving more demand for microchips, hard drives and data centres. “The digital journey that companies didn’t want to take will now have to be taken,” he said. Resistant managers are being forced to learn new tools, and that will stick: “The longer this lasts, the more habits will be refined.”  


Before Covid-19 came along, few mature companies considered flexible schedules a necessity. They were a morale booster, perhaps, and a way to accommodate employees with physical constraints or children. Hot-desking could reduce the need for space. Less commuting meant less smog and traffic congestion. Inertia, however, stood in the way.

In many cases, the requisite software was barely integrated into workflows, mostly because older managers resisted learning new tools. Their reluctance was understandable in some cases. Many packages were hastily tweaked versions of apps designed for casual consumers, prone to crash and full of security holes.

Another hurdle has been measuring performance. For all the business intelligence software on the market, many bosses still rely on physical presence as a proxy for productivity. This is particularly evident in East Asia, where rising technological sophistication has been offset by cultures that value contribution by overtime at the desk. China, for example, pioneered a brutal work schedule known as 9-9-6: from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week. Some Japanese companies tried to maintain attendance through the epidemic, including obligatory “nomikai” post-work drinking sessions.

At this economic moment, however, the biggest advocates of work-from-home may be accountants. “Cashflow became king during the global financial crisis,” said Paul Salnikow, founder of high-end flexible workspace provider The Executive Centre. Speaking in one of his swishy Hong Kong locations, he estimated that for his clients, most of which have less than 50 employees, rent comprises from 15% to 20% of recurring costs. Such small- and medium-sized businesses collectively employ over half the world’s workforce, per the World Bank, so if they cancel their fixed leases in tandem, it could really hit the commercial real estate market.

Bigger companies are considering downsizing too. One regional manager at a global serviced office provider told Breakingviews that some of his largest clients had asked to reduce square footage by 20% to 30%.

Some of these adjustments will be temporary. John Saunders, head of Asia Pacific real estate at investment goliath BlackRock, allowed that a migration to more flexibility could shrink overall demand for offices by 10% or less in the long run, but predicted a rush back to desks as quarantines wind down. “The longer this goes on, the longer it exposes the frustrations” of remote work, he said. “I’m actually incredibly tired at the moment.”


Bartenders, strawberry pickers, mechanics and such have to show up on the job no matter what, but it is safe to assume most of the 2 billion members of the world’s middle class, as defined by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, work at desks. Where breathless advocates consider telecommuting the best thing to happen to work-life balance since casual Fridays, human resources departments see goofing off on the clock. A group of Hang Seng Bank trainees in Hong Kong, for example, were busted after posting an ill-advised selfie of themselves hiking tagged “best WFH activity.”

Workers in the United States, China, Japan, Germany and Italy reported that they were just as productive, or more so, at home, according to a March survey by computer manufacturer Lenovo. But the hard evidence is equivocal. Stanford University researchers concluded in 2002 that “empirical research to date has been largely unsuccessful in identifying and explaining what happens when people telework” and said there was no evidence it consistently increased job satisfaction or productivity. One issue is respondent bias implicit in surveys like Lenovo’s. Employees that enjoy working from home tend to report increased output regardless of reality – and vice versa.

A more recent experiment in 2012 from the University of Innsbruck in Austria showed positive effects on output when people did creative tasks from home, but less so when they performed rote ones. The study found, unsurprisingly, that habitual procrastinators became less productive.

The information technology industry has been less enthusiastic than one might expect. Yahoo’s generous telework policy was ditched in 2013 soon after Marissa Mayer became boss, as she tried to rebuild the struggling internet portal’s culture. “Back to the Stone Age?” was the uncharitable Forbes headline. IBM – which in 2009 had 40% of its 386,000 employees worldwide working from home – began a reversal a couple years ago.

Trip.com, previously known as Ctrip, provides another stark example. The Chinese online travel giant was the subject of a Stanford experiment in 2014 that showed telecommuting increased productivity by 13%. Employees worked more minutes per shift and took more calls on average. Yet Trip.com, which switched to a mandatory remote policy during the outbreak, told Breakingviews in April that it had moved most staff back to the office, and that the proportion of those working from home was low.

One issue is that telecommuting tends to work best when business is running smoothly. Yahoo was a mess when Mayer took over; IBM revenue had been on a long slide when it decided to bring staff back. Poorly disciplined organisations become even less so when they take their eyes off employees. A 2012 inquiry into an award-winning telework programme for U.S. patent examiners, for example, found signs of widespread timesheet fraud. Controls were “completely ineffective,” it concluded.

The same study, however, also exposed common flaws of inappropriate performance measurement and incentives for remote workers. The patent examiners were paid by hours put in, not output. They tended to slack off for weeks, the report noted, then cram all the work in before deadlines. Yet investigators conceded that most everything got done on time.  


Since the global financial crisis, Western democracies have recorded a “job-rich but productivity-weak recovery,” as consultants at McKinsey put it. The causes are complex, but one factor is that much of the technological advancement that was supposed to enhance labour efficiency didn’t. That won’t surprise anyone who has spent hours on the phone with tech support.

One benefit of Covid-19, however, has been the way it put collaboration software through a massive stress test, forcing vendors to clean up their code. It also has compelled employees and managers to learn how to use technology they once resisted. Both will boost output. For many, telework means fewer hours on the road. In some areas, commuting costs can exceed $10,000 a year. The average American spends around 200 hours a year getting to and from work. Letting them keep that time and cash, instead of extending workdays, would provide an equivalent of five weeks off plus more disposable income.

A U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics survey found that a quarter of Americans who had been granted the option to telecommute before the pandemic were in the top salary decile. That suggests it has been something of a C-suite perk. Before proles get too excited, however, they should consider this may also be the symptom of a disease. More executives have become terrible workaholics, which explains why the average working week has been steadily getting longer.

Consider how Alibaba’s DingTalk has been deployed in China. Capable of handling over 300 people in a single virtual conference room, its usage exploded as managers and teachers forced subordinates and students to log in. It rapidly became one of the most hated software products in the country, arguably because it works too well. Online commenters have railed against the way it erodes barriers between work and personal time. In addition to constant dinging notifications, the system can track physical whereabouts and require daily reports where workers log completed tasks. In China, working from home was immediately put in the service of 9-9-6. It’s likely that something similar will happen in other countries. 

That will come with a cost. In the United States, for example, net labour productivity growth, while slow, has still grown six times faster than compensation since 1979, according to an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute. This trend, observable in other developed economies, has exacerbated wealth inequality. Today the frustrated aspirations of the overworked middle and lower classes manifest in political extremism, substance abuse, divorce and troubled children – all of them expenses passed on to society one way or another.  

In Japan, pointlessly long office hours have delivered decades of economic and demographic stagnation by crowding out consumption and procreation. Nor is it necessarily profitable for individual companies to burn the labour candle at both ends, especially if it produces high turnover among talented staff.

Presented with an opportunity to gift people more time with families, friends, dogs and bicycles, the risk is that corporate slaves to quarterly targets will be unable to restrain themselves from filling the extra time created with more email chains, overstaffed conference calls and project management checklists – all of which drain morale and efficiency.  


Some bosses discovered during the quarantine that it made little difference whether their people sat in the same place or not. That could say something very good, or something very bad, about their team performance and chemistry. Regardless, the point of having co-workers together physically is to encourage collaboration, both through structured events and spontaneously, and to facilitate training and mentoring.

Research labs, advertising agencies and trading floors rely on a communal approach to problem-solving, which demands physical presence, or something very close to it.  Yet dun cubicle farms have proven little better at stimulating conversation than the ninth Zoom call of the day. In Yahoo’s case, it’s worth noting that dragging everyone back to their desks did not produce a decisive turnaround.  

In the early days of the Industrial Revolution, some predicted that machines would free people from work altogether: everyone could be an idle aristocrat. And yet humanity did not take that path, because there’s a basic human pleasure derived from jointly tackling tasks, if only for an excuse to gab. “The small talk over coffee, or on the way to lunch – these are the moments that have disappeared,” said Gurle of Symphony. “I don’t know what is the cost of that – that soft world around the hard world of work. I have not found a substitute.”

Companies that consciously incorporate this human drive into their teleworking plans will probably outperform those who lurch to one extreme or the other. The most effective template may resemble the model used in post-secondary education. Like graduate students who make their way to campus for class or group projects, workers could head to their jobsites for specific events intended to stimulate collaboration, build team spirit or train staff. The rest of the time, they could work from anywhere. In the end, people spending more efficient time on the job at home could ultimately make the office a better place to work.  


Reuters Breakingviews is the world’s leading source of agenda-setting financial insight. As the Reuters brand for financial commentary, we dissect the big business and economic stories as they break around the world every day. A global team of about 30 correspondents in New York, London, Hong Kong and other major cities provides expert analysis in real time.

Sign up for a free trial of our full service at https://www.breakingviews.com/trial and follow us on Twitter @Breakingviews and at www.breakingviews.com. All opinions expressed are those of the authors.

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A beginner’s guide to natural language processing and generation

A beginner’s guide to natural language processing and generation

This article is part of Demystifying AI, a series of posts that (try to) disambiguate the jargon and myths surrounding AI.

20 years ago, if you had a database table containing your sales information and you wanted to pull up the ten most sold items in the past year, you would have to run a command that looked like this:

SELECT TOP 10 SUM(sale_total) AS total_sales FROM sales 
WHERE sale_date > DATEADD(day, -365, GETDATE()) GROUP BY item_id

Today, performing the same task can be as easy as writing the following query in a platform such as IBM Watson:

Which 10 items sold the most in the past year?

From punch cards to keyboards, mice, and touch screens, human-computer interfacing technologies have undergone major changes, and each change has made it easier to make use of computing resources and power.

But never have those changes been more dramatic than in the past decade, the period in which artificial intelligence turned from a sci-fi myth to everyday reality. Thanks to the advent of machine learning, AI algorithms that learn by examples, we can talk to Alexa, Siri, Cortana, and Google Assistant, and they can talk back to us.

Behind the revolution in digital assistants and other conversational interfaces are natural language processing and generation (NLP/NLG), two branches of machine learning that involve converting human language to computer commands and vice versa.

NLP and NLG have removed many of the barriers between humans and computers, not only enabling them to understand and interact with each other, but also creating new opportunities to augment human intelligence and accomplish tasks that were impossible before.

[Read: How quantum computers could make future humans immortal]

The challenges of parsing human language

For decades, scientists have tried to enable humans to interact with computers through natural language commands. One of the earliest examples was ELIZA, the first natural language processing application created by the MIT AI Lab in the 1960s. ELIZA emulated the behavior of a psychiatrist and dialogued with users, asking them about their feelings, and giving appropriate responses. ELIZA was followed by PARRY (1972) and Jabberwacky (1988).

Another example is Zork, an interactive adventure game developed in the 1970s, in which the player gave directives by typing sentences in a command line interface, such as “put the lamp and sword in the case.”

The challenge of all early conversational interfaces was that the software powering them was rule-based, which means the programmers had to predict and include all the different forms that a command could be given to the application. The problem with this approach was that first, the code of the program became too convoluted, and second, developers still missed out plenty of the ways that the users might make a request.

As an example, you can ask the weather in countless ways, such as “how’s the weather today?” or “will it rain in the afternoon?”  or “will it be sunny next week?” or “will it be warmer tomorrow?” For a human, understanding and responding to all those different nuances is trivial. But a rule-based software needs explicit instructions for every possible variation, and it has to take into account typos, grammatical errors and more.

The sheer amount of time and energy required to accommodate for all those different scenarios is what previously prevented conversational applications from gaining traction. Over the years, we’ve become used to rigid graphical user interface elements such as command buttons and dropdown menus that prevent users from stepping out the boundaries of the application’s predefined set of commands.

How machine learning and NLP solve the problem

NLP uses machine learning and deep learning algorithms to analyze human language in a smart way. Machine learning doesn’t work with predefined rules. Instead, it learns by example. In the case of NLP, machine learning algorithms train on thousands and millions of text samples, word, sentences and paragraphs, which have been labeled by humans. By studying those examples, it gains a general understanding of the context of human language and uses that knowledge to parse future excerpts of text.

This model makes it possible for NLP software to understand the meaning of various nuances of human language without requiring to be explicitly told. With enough training, NLP algorithms can also understand the broader meaning of human-spoken or -written language.

For instance, based on the context of a conversation, NLP can determine if the word “cloud” is a reference to cloud computing or the mass of condensed water vapor floating in the sky. It might also be able to understand intent and emotion, such as whether you’re asking a question out of frustration, confusion or irritation.

What are the uses of NLP?

Digital assistants are just one of the many use cases of NLP. Another is the database querying example that we saw at the beginning of the article. But there are many other places where NLP is helping augment human efforts.

An example is IBM Watson for Cybersecurity. Watson uses NLP to read thousands of cybersecurity articles, whitepapers, and studies every month, more than any human expert could possibly study. It uses the insights it gleans from the unstructured information to learn about new threats and protect its customers against them.

We also saw the power of NLP behind the sudden leap that Google’s translation service took in 2016.

Some other use cases include summarizing blocks of text and automatically generating tags and related posts for articles. Some companies are using NLP-powered software to do sentiment-analysis of online content and social media posts to understand how people are reacting to their products and services.

Another domain where NLP is making inroads is chatbots, which are now accomplishing things that ELIZA wasn’t able to do. We’re seeing NLP-powered chatbots in fields such as healthcare, where they can question patients and run basic diagnoses like real doctors. In education, they’re providing students with on-demand online tutors that can help them through an easy-to-use, conversational interface whenever they need them

In businesses, customer service chatbots use the technology to understand and respond to trivial customer queries and leave human employees to focus their attention on taking care of follow ups and more complicated problems.

Creating output that looks human-made with NLG

The flip side of the NLP coin is NLG. According to Gartner, “Whereas NLP is focused on deriving analytic insights from textual data, NLG is used to synthesize textual content by combining analytic output with contextualized narratives.”

In other words, if NLP enables software to read human language and convert it to computer-understandable data, NLG enables it to convert computer-generated data into human-understandable text.

You can see NLG in power in a feature Gmail added a couple of years ago, which creates automatic answers for your letters using your own style. Another interesting use of NLG is creating reports from complex data. For instance, NLG algorithms can create narrative descriptions of company data and charts. This can be helpful data analysts that have to spend considerable time creating meaningful reports of all the data they analyze for executives.

The road ahead

In the beginning, there was a huge technical gap between humans and computers. That gap is fast closing, thanks in part to NLP and NLG and other AI-related technologies. We’re becoming more and more used to talking to our computers as if they were a real assistant or a friend back from the dead.

What happens next? Maybe NLP and NLG will remain focused on fulfilling more and more utilitarian use cases. Or maybe they’ll lead us toward real, Turing-complete machines that might deceive humans into loving them. Whatever the case, exciting times are ahead.

This article was originally published by Ben Dickson on TechTalks, a publication that examines trends in technology, how they affect the way we live and do business, and the problems they solve. But we also discuss the evil side of technology, the darker implications of new tech and what we need to look out for. You can read the original article here.

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How to Create Your Own Successful Podcast

How to Create Your Own Successful Podcast

My favorite podcast, Fresh Air with Terry Gross, from National Public Radio’s WHYY in Philadelphia, has featured many well-known guests, from Hillary Clinton to comedy legend Mel Brooks. But what draws me in is Gross’s warm rapport with her guests. It reminds me, as a journalist, to listen closely to those I interview and ask intelligent, relevant questions.

It’s a great time to experiment with this medium, since podcasts are drawing increasing attention from media companies. Recently, Spotify obtained exclusive rights to broadcast the very popular podcast The Joe Rogan Experience—a deal The Wall Street Journal said could be “worth more than $100 million.” And Apple has been steadily adding to its podcast catalog, most recently acquiring The Zane Lowe Interview Series.

Looking to get into this expanding and potentially lucrative medium? We’ve done the work to help you get started.

What Is a Podcast?

At its most basic, a podcast is a digital audio program or recording, similar to a radio or television show, that can be downloaded from the internet or made available to and accessed from various mobile devices. As with most media in the digital age, the format, structure, and content of a podcast often resemble those of an older analog medium: the broadcast-radio program. Podcasts, like radio, are often created serially and post new episodes regularly.

There are important distinctions, though. For starters, the notion of time is different for podcasts: Each listener is in control of when (and on which device) to listen to a podcast, as opposed to radio and television, which run shows at specific times. Also, you can make your podcast episode any length you want—five minutes or five hours. As a podcaster, you’re in control.

Types of Podcasts

There are a number of formats you can choose for your podcast. Consider which type is best for presenting your content.

  • Interview: Like the Fresh Air podcast, this is the most common format. It most often features one host who introduces and interviews guests. One example is Fast Forward with Dan Costa, which features one-on-one discussions with leaders in technology and business (hosted by PCMag’s editor-in-chief). An offshoot of this type is a panel-discussion or roundtable format, with a host who leads the conversation.

  • Monologue: The commentary-style podcast is built around one personality, which gives the show one voice or a single point of view. Lore, which focuses on the frightening history behind common folklore and is told in almost a campfire-like style, is a wonderful example of a solo-style podcast.

  • Multiple hosts: In this format, the podcast is divided up between several different people, or two or more co-hosts share leading the show. For instance, Pardon My Take is a raucous comedic sports podcast featuring two co-hosts, Dan “Big Cat” Katz and PFT Commenter (Pro Football Talk Commenter).

  • Narrative: Unlike the first three, this storytelling style of podcast focuses on how the content is presented. In many ways, this type has fueled the popularity of podcasting recently. And while some of the previously mentioned podcasts, like Lore, could fit here as well, many narrative podcasts have a decidedly linear quality and generally don’t change to another topic or segment. This can be either non-fiction, such as This American Life and Serial, or fictional, such as Wolf 359 and Flash Forward.

  • Mixed: This hybrid format uses various elements of the other four content types. It also may repurpose content from other mediums, such as radio or television.

How to Tell It’s a Podcast

Several online media formats that feature audio resemble one another but aren’t all technically podcasts.

  • Podcast:  As defined above, a digital file that focuses on audio content and can be downloaded from a website or the cloud.

  • Video podcast:  Sometimes called a “vidcast,” it’s similar to a podcast but includes a visual component, which might be a slideshow of still images or actual video.

  • Webcast:  The distinguishing factor for webcasts is that they generally include live segments.

  • Vlog:  A vlog, or video blog, uses a blog-style format (the most up-to-date episode is shown first) but presents the content in a video format (on a platform such as YouTube). For more, check out PCMag’s roundup of the Best Vlogging Cameras and Tools.

For more on podcast types, podcast strategy, news, and more see these online resources:|

The Podcast Equipment You’ll Need

Improvements in hardware and software technology have dramatically changed the way podcasts are developed, created, produced, and publicized. Additionally, laptops, desktops, tablets, phones, and other devices are equipped with more powerful processors and other features that make creating podcasts easy. There are even new, inexpensive ways to make sure your environment helps you attain the best quality audio.

Audio Hardware

Your budget will be the biggest factor in determining what equipment you buy. You’ll also need to figure out how extensive your recording rig has to be: If you aren’t tied to recording in a particular location, you can build a setup that lets you record and edit in one room or even part of a room. But if you need to record in the field, you’ll likely need additional gear.

Determining what’s essential and what’s optional will be different for each podcaster. The following list gives you an idea of what you need to get started.


The microphone is the most important piece of equipment for podcasters, since it’s responsible for reproducing the voices you’ll create on the show.

  • Condenser vs. dynamic mic:  Podcasters have a choice of two main types of microphones, dynamic or condenser. Historically, dynamic microphones were more rugged and didn’t pick up as much ambient noise as condenser mics; the latter are generally more sensitive and produce a higher output. Condenser mics can be great for studios but may pick up too much ambient sound for field use. Dynamic mics may hide some pops or noise from the wind, but may not be as detailed in producing audio.

  • USB vs. XLR mic:  If you’re looking to use only one microphone via a computer and you’re on a tight budget, a USB mic is a great choice: A preamp and A/D converter are built into the mic itself. In fact, you just have to plug it into your computer and fire up your DAW (digital audio workstation). XLR mics, which carry an analog signal, offer a wider choice of models, but they need an audio interface to connect with a computer.

  • Recommended models: The Apogee HypeMiC includes analog compression in its signal chain to very impressive results. And the Blue Snowball Ice delivers excellent quality audio for just $50. Both are PCMag Editors’ Choices.


There’s a vast array of headphones on the market, and they can range widely in price, from $20 for a cheap pair of earbuds to more than $2,000 for certain Sennheiser and Audeze models. Here are a few things to consider before you invest in a pair for podcasting.

  • Quality and comfort:  It’s important that you get the best-sounding headphones you can afford, since you’ll be using them to monitor your audio in real time and listen to the playback of your show. But you’ll want to make sure they’re comfortable, too. Research reviews online to find both quality and comfort.

  • Type and design:  For podcasting, an over-the-ear closed design is most suitable, since it prevents audio from leaking out from the earcup and being picked up by your microphone.

  • Wireless and noise-canceling: Many new models on the market are wireless and include noise-canceling features. In some cases, such as working in the field, a pair of wireless headphones is useful, particularly if you’re using a mobile device. But for podcasting, active noise canceling may cause problems—particularly when you’re conducting an interview in the studio, since it can produce slightly distorted live audio and be distracting when you’re trying to carry on a conversation. If your headphones include this feature, turn it off.

  • Price:  Do research to find the best price for the quality and features you need. You should be able to find an over-the-ear pair for $200 or less.

  • Models: There are many over-ear models to consider for your podcasting needs, but two stand out. The HiFiMan Ananda headphones deliver stunning audio performance, providing a superb sense of space and detail. And the Status Audio BT One wireless headphones deliver strong audio in a handsome design for a surprisingly affordable price. Both are PCMag Editors’ Choices.

PCs, Audio Interfaces, and Mixing Boards

Price varies a lot on the following gear. Research to get the right system or device for you.

  • Laptop or desktop computer: All laptops and desktops (Macs and PCs) give you the ability to record, edit, and produce your podcast. PCMag provides great reviews on computers to help you search, but the DAW software you plan to use may influence whether you go with a Mac or a PC.

  • Audio interface and mixing boards:  If you’re not using a USB microphone, you’ll need to set up an audio interface on your computer to convert the analog audio signal from your XLR microphone into a digital signal. In the past, audio interfaces used FireWire, but almost all now connect via USB. Prices start at around $100. You can buy really elaborate ones, but for podcasting, you can expect to spend between $100 and $300. You’ll most likely need a mixing board, too, particularly when you have more than one person participating in the podcast. For more on what mixer you might want with your setup, check out the Best Audio Mixers For Podcasting & Music (w/ USB Interface) and 10 reasons you should get a mixer for podcasting.

  • Accessories: pop filter can make an important difference in your audio quality. It’s a screen that fits in front of your mic and prevents air from making popping sounds on your audio. You’ll also want to invest in well-designed mic stands for your studio. When you’re in the field, be sure to bring along good-quality backpacks and cases to protect your audio equipment from the elements. There are also some great mobile accessories that let you maximize and even improve the audio quality of your phone or tablet, such as tiny mics and audio interfaces designed specifically for mobile devices. Last, when you’re recording in the field or on location, a portable audio recorder is very useful.

  • Soundproofing:  Another important aspect to recording audio is to have a proper audio studio to create your podcast, which should be soundproofed. Professional setups can cost thousands of dollars, but you can also create a budget version. Here are some ideas and links to resources to get your room soundproofed properly. For more, check out How to Record High-Quality Audio at Home and Do I Need Soundproofing For My Podcast?

Software, Apps, and Podcast Hosting Services

Software for Audio Editing

To record your podcast properly on your computer, you’ll need DAW software, such as Propellerhead’s Reason or Avid Pro Tools, which can cost from around $100 to over $600. For Adobe Audition, you need a subscription, which can cost $20.99 a month (although Adobe often runs special offers).

For podcast newbies, it’s a good idea to download one of the most popular (free) audio apps: Audacity, a versatile two-track editor that includes lots of online tutorials. GarageBand software, which comes free on all Mac computers, is also a great option. You can record audio, edit it, adjust tonal qualities, add effects to make it fuller, and perform many other podcasting tasks. You can also import audio clips, including audio you’ve captured on an external audio recorder, your tablet, or your phone.

Cast offers all the tools aspiring or professional podcasters need to record, edit, and publish a podcast. This comprehensive and easy-to-use service wins an Editors’ Choice for podcasting software despite some sound issues in testing. And Zencastr is a superb platform for recording podcasts, but you’ll have to look elsewhere when it comes to editing, hosting, and publishing your content.

Mobile Apps

Another option is to use an app to create your podcast. Apple iPhone and iPad owners get GarageBand for free, as do Mac owners. As for Android, Pocket Casts is a fine choice for using your phone to create a podcast. (And for listening to podcasts, check out The 10 Best Podcast Player Apps for 2020.)

For more on getting started with DAWs and audio editing:

Podcast Hosting

Once you’ve produced the audio file for your podcast, you’ll need to transfer it to a hosting service, so you can get your podcast listed in various directories (iTunes, Stitcher, and so on). This will also generate an RSS feed—important for getting your podcast noticed. Quite a few podcast-hosting services are available; many offer free trials or free tier options. Well-known services include Libsyn, SoundCloud, BuzzSprout, and Fireside, but others are worth a look.

For more, check Top 13 Podcast Hosting Sites In 2019 + Free Month Offers as well as How to get an Amazon Alexa Skill for your Podcast, which shows you one way of getting an Amazon Alexa skill so listeners can access your podcast via an Amazon Echo speaker, or other Amazon product that includes the Alexa voice service.

Tips for Creating Successful Podcasts

Although it’s a great time to start podcasting, you should realize that the landscape is competitive, no matter how niche your market. Podcasts take a lot of time and effort, so don’t be discouraged if you’ve created your dream podcast, but no one’s listening yet. There are many things to learn—and most of those lessons come through trial and error. Here are some tips to help you stay inspired.

  • Keep Your Podcast Focused. While it might be tempting to create a podcast that’s all things to all listeners, successful shows tend to have a narrow, focused topic.

  • Picture Your Target Audience. When writing or producing content, it’s helpful to think about the type of audience you’re trying to reach with your podcast. Many marketers set up buyer personas, which are fictionalized models of ideal customers. You can develop such models to help you craft your content.

  • Be Consistent. If you want to be taken seriously, post episodes of your podcast regularly and consistently.

  • Plan Your Workflow. Should you write a detailed script or simply ad lib? It could work best to have a little of both, but that depends on the podcast. Either way, you’ll need some sort of workflow to develop your ideas and bring them to fruition. At the very least, be sure to sketch out the major themes of each show and know your subject thoroughly. When you have multiple voices that you’re interacting with on each episode, be sure everyone is comfortable with the process and with how casual or detailed the script needs to be. For more advice, see Planning Your Podcast Script.

  • Use Music Segments, but Don’t Infringe on Copyrights. Add good intro and outro music to your podcast, but make sure you aren’t infringing on anyone’s copyright.

  • Promote Your Podcast. Once you have your podcast posted on your hosting service, you may think that your job is done, but it’s imperative that you promote your podcast. For that, check out 8 Ways to Drive Traffic to Your Podcast On Social Media and 4 Ways to Measure Podcasting Success.

Podcast Resources

The following are some helpful resources you can check to help you get started, solve a problem, and keep you inspired as you try to create your podcast:

Some Great Podcasts

About Podcasting

Other aspects you’ll want to be aware of include the legalities of creating and running a podcast. To get up to speed, take a look at the following resources:



Further Reading

Audio Reviews

Audio Best Picks

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The Best CRM Software for 2020

The Best CRM Software for 2020

PCMag editors select and review products independently. We may earn affiliate commissions from buying links, which help support our testing. Learn more.

Customer relationship management (CRM) tools continue to transcend their customer support and contact management roots to become multi-faceted marketing and sales solutions focused on collaboration and closing deals. Here we look at some of the best CRM tools.

How to Choose the Right CRM Software

What Is CRM Software?

Customer relationship management (CRM) is more than initiating contact with potential leads. It involves nurturing contacts and building loyalty while maintaining a dynamic repository of contact information and client history. Making this information accessible for collaborative teams and piping it out to other business software solutions via smart integrations is the logical next step.

User experience (UX) has become more important than ever, and being able to efficiently manage a businesses’ relationship with customers through the entire sales and after-sales process is a key consideration. For small to midsize businesses (SMBs) trying to emulate CRM functionality on a large and unwieldy spreadsheet could lead to a lot of confusion and redundancy. CRM solutions are easier to use than spreadsheets, they also do more than contain user and contact information because they can dynamically create calendar events and set reminders. CRM software often integrates messaging and phone calling functionality, usually with recorded conversations that can be used to track and document customer sentiment and better insights.

A good CRM solution records your customers’ contact information and remembers the details of your relationship and every interaction—whether by phone or email, and nowadays across other channels such as social media or even your customer help desk.

This information is a goldmine of opportunity, letting you identify prospects for up-sell or cross-sell, convert existing customers to new products or services, target new marketing, or even track invoices. The software is also a fail-safe, preventing sales people from chasing the same prospect. Choosing the right CRM software for your business can dramatically improve your team’s collaboration and productivity, increase sales, and heighten customer satisfaction.

In its report, “CRM Software Market Research Report – Global Forecast to 2023,” Market research firm Market Research Future forecasts the CRM market to grow up to 35 billion by 2023. In addition, the CRM market’s compound annual growth rate (CAGR) will be 6 percent between 2017 and 2023, according to the report. A key area for CRM growth in 2018 and 2019 will be the addition of artificial intelligence (AI) to leading CRM platforms. Manufacturers like Salesforce and Microsoft are either building their own AI engines to enhance their CRM capabilities or partnering with the likes of IBM’s Watson and similiar players to integrate AI’s benefits into their offerings. This will have significant impact in any CRM’s ability to parse data and draw new insights from all kinds of customer interactions, and that has a direct impact on CRM revenue as market research firm, Statista shows us, details below.

The Revenue Impact of AI Adoption in CRM

(Image courtesy of Statista)

Such a revenue impact is possible because AI-enhanced CRM is literally a quantum leap ahead of what many companies still call customer relationship management.

Even now, employees might use a spreadsheet to simply pass on information about past sales via email threads. Or worse, such information is often left to casual word of mouth, which means it’s often missing when needed or it’s entirely forgotten. CRM software keeps this information in one place, efficiently organizes it, and makes it possible to take immediate action with it. Such actions can include sending a loyal customer a gift card on their birthday or offering an up-sell opportunity to a platform from which you know their business can benefit (based on previous conversations). It’s also a great way to woo back inactive customers. The key is to select the software that’s right for the way your team works. The last thing you want is to see employees fighting new software instead of interacting with the customer.

CRM software isn’t just about tracking and maintaining contact information. While most look to CRM software as primarily a sales tool, it’s moved beyond that space. Marketing and customer service departments can dramatically improve their offerings and operations with CRM as well by using its data to more effectively segment demographics and record and reuse customer incident information. CRM software also helps coordinate interdepartmental actions. For example, the sales team can take advantage of something a customer service representative discovered in a separate transaction. Depending upon the software you choose, you can set and measure sales goals, deliver and track email marketing campaigns, or keep an eye on what people are saying on social media.

Pricing and Add-ons

Price can be a significant factor when evaluating CRM software, but that analysis should focus on more than just the upfront costs. Most of the CRM software we looked at offers per-user pricing but it’s important to check what’s included in that price and which features you actually need.

Training can eat up a chunk of the budget as can upgrades and ongoing support. Consider how much it would cost to integrate the software with existing systems and whether or not you would need additional equipment. That mobile implementation looks slick on the vendor’s website, but will it still look that slick once you’ve designed the customized CRM forms your business will use every day? Does it mean the sales or customer service teams need new smartphones or maybe even tablets? These costs can quickly add up.

Taking the time investment into consideration is why trying out more than one program is key. This way, you can choose the software that will be most efficient for your company. If you have the resources to train and onboard staff and customize the software yourself, then eventually it will start to work for you.

Smaller teams can’t afford to invest in software that asks a lot up front; you need something that will be up and running in a day in most cases. Read the support documentation and you’ll get an idea of setup complexity and any issues you might bump into with the software you already have. Use the free evaluation period to try out important features: import data, add information manually, connect accounts, and assign tasks to other users. Take note of how helpful the software is and whether or not it creates more work. Keep track of how often you have to consult the help system to complete a basic task.

One of the continuing trends we’re seeing with CRM solutions is that they are being consolidated into larger product ecosystems. Some products, like the venerable Zoho CRM, aren’t just the flagship suite of solutions in their ecosystem, they set the template for the rest of the solutions the vendor offers. Once a notable standalone solution, Base CRM, was acquired by Zendesk and converted into Zendesk Sell which is a more integrated solution that can feed into Zendesk’s impressive array customer support-driven SMB solutions. Freshsales CRM similarly provides a lightweight and simple SMB-focused CRM solution while offering expanded functionality. This includes providing integrations, workflow automation, and sales intelligence features. Freshsales CRM also synchs nicely with Freshcaller and Freshdesk solutions. A distinct convenience for businesses using those solutions.

Other CRM solutions like Sales Creatio have refined their user interfaces to enable users to switch on specific business processes. Sales Creatio makes it possible to toggle between Marketing, Sales, and Service functioning as a more dynamic control center for running various facets of CRM.

SMBs need to play the long game with their choice of CRM solutions. For growth stage companies or businesses looking at expansion should start analyzing which integrations will make sense in the future.

Analysis to Boost Adoption

Taking the time to analyze not only what a prospective CRM can do, but also what you need any CRM to do in your particular sales cycle is key, and not just to get the best price on your investment. CRM has suffered from adoption problems in many companies that simply buy these tools and bolt them onto an existing sales workflow. Do that, and your sales people and even their managers, are likely to see the system as just another hurdle they need to overcome on their never-ending quest for a commission rather than a powerful tool to help them fulfill that quest more quickly.

As CRM software has grown more sophisticated, it has branched out into many different directions. There are plenty of options for implementing your CRM in a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) model or for deploying it on-premises by using your own server. Cloud-based CRM is rapidly growing in popularity because it means you can quickly get up to speed and don’t have to worry about managing software on your own servers, which adds complexity and cost. You can look for the software that has deep hooks into social media management and analytics platforms so you can record customer interactions on Facebook or Twitter. Plus, you should definitely consider CRM software that integrates with your business phone system so you can capture call and conversation information. Look closely at your business processes, discuss with employees what they need and want, and contrast that with your bottom line. By doing so, you’ll quickly have an accurate picture of the right CRM software for you.

It’s tempting to forgo this homework and simply pay for one of the big, all-inclusive CRM software packages just to have access to every feature you might need now or in the future. But that approach will almost certainly wind up costing you more in both time and money, while probably delivering less flexibility than you’d expect. That’s because these large CRM software packages are often platforms rather than tools. This means that those myriad features they advertise are really the product of integrating with a host of third-party solution providers, not options you can simply turn on. Third-party integration means not only added licensing dollars but also new integration costs.

A better approach is to understand how your employees have to use the software as well as how they want to use it. Think about what tools your team is currently using and what processes they follow. Figure out how those tasks map to the CRM software you’re evaluating. Consider what some of the most common tasks are. For example, if the users have to dig through menus and submenus every single time they want to log a call or email, then the tool will actually complicate their jobs instead of simplify them. More and more CRM tools are also combining the email and sales experience into a single smart inbox or centralized dashboard view to manage all or most daily communications and tasks, without leaving the CRM tool.

As with any piece of software, it’s essential to take advantage of free trials when available. No matter how many reviews you read or demos you watch, you can’t get a real sense of how the CRM software works until you use it yourself. Be sure to have colleagues from different departments try out the software, too, so you can understand how successful it is in different situations and business processes.

Most companies offer at least a 14-day trial (and we consider that fairly short as 30 days is better) and some, including Apptivo CRM, Insightly CRM, and Zoho CRM offer free plans, albeit with limited features or users. These can either serve as a full-time solution for small companies or as a long-term trial for larger companies.

Ease of Use and Support

CRM software must be intuitive or you’ll never want to use it. Make a note of how many clicks it takes to conduct a basic task and how easy or difficult it is to find the features you need. Beyond being easy to use, CRM software should be able to manage user error. For example, if you try to conduct a task on the wrong screen or input the wrong data, then the best software will identify your error and suggest the right way to do it. On the other hand, poorly designed software will either let you make the error unchecked or will throw up an unhelpful error message.

One way to figure out if CRM software is really easy to use is by training others on how to use it. If you get stuck while training someone else, then that’s worth noting. Think about the time it will take to get your team up to speed and whether or not it’s worth that investment.

Finally, when you run into problems, whether it’s a software bug or a problem using a feature, you’ll need a responsive support team. Verify what type of support is included with your subscription and the hours of availability. If available, read through the support documentation, FAQs, and other self-service help (options include blog entries, public knowledge bases, and even online training videos). If there aren’t any self-service options, then consider that you’ll have to contact support whenever you get stuck. That said, you should contact support while you’re trying out software and make a note of the response time. Ask a lot of questions; this will also help you familiarize yourself with the product. CRM software is complicated, but support shouldn’t be.

And watch out for gaps in the support plan. Many of these solutions, especially the SaaS entries, have tiered, subscription-based pricing. That often means different levels of support depending on the subscription you choose. If your business process requires access to the CRM on weekends, for example, then make sure you’ve got access to support during those hours.

Seek the best Email, Mobile, and Social Features

Don’t get distracted by CRM capabilities you won’t use. Make sure the software you ultimately select captures the information that’s essential for your business, allows effective follow-up, and is easy enough to use that your team will work with it, not around it.

Remember that new technologies, while slick, aren’t automatically pervasive. For example, social media is a game-changing technology for interacting with customers. But as much as social and collaboration applications such as Slack are catching on, that doesn’t mean email is dead. Most customers still expect to interact with you via email, and an email can still capture much more data than a Facebook post or a tweet can. Understand how your company interacts with customers over email and make sure your CRM software acts as a complement to that relationship, not as a hindrance. CRM software should automatically capture data from email interactions, not force your employees to manually enter email data.

Take the time to also properly evaluate the mobile app; this should be considered a separate app, not just as a mobile “capability,” and you also shouldn’t be asked to pay anything extra for it. Mobile devices are an entirely different breed from desktops or notebooks. Employees use them differently and software renders them differently, which means that business processes that involve them will behave differently.

Make sure your CRM software of choice can support the mobile device platform your team uses and carefully evaluate what the app can do. Some apps offer a read-only view of your sales pipeline or contacts so that you can look up the relevant information while out and about. Those apps won’t let you make updates until you get back to a computer. Others offer a seamless and responsive experience, letting you do everything you would do on a mobile device that you would on a computer (but usually presenting tools and features differently, which can be difficult for some users to get used to). Don’t commit to CRM software until you’ve actually used the mobile app in a way you and your team would on a day-to-day basis. For many SMBs and their agents the mobile component of a CRM app might even be more critical than the desktop version.

Companies, including Sugar CRM and Zoho, cater to the mobile workforce, with full-featured, responsive apps, and mobile layouts. If you have a field sales team that leaves their laptops behind and instead works on their tablets and smartphones, then you need to give them the tools they need.

Marketing Automation and Lead Management

The ability to act as a lynchpin for a well-planned marketing automation strategy is one of the most valuable aspects of CRM software, and it’s a shame that not all software packages offer it—though most are beginning to get there. Marketing automation is a popular term these days and it refers to the software’s ability to remind sales and marketing representatives to follow up with customers at the right time. Automation reminds you—or, in some cases, actually handles the task for you—of needed activities such as following up 30 days after a sales purchase with a coupon or calling the sales prospect 14 days after the individual signed up for a trial of the software. It can also extend to other software, such as kicking off an email marketing promotion based on criteria that are reached during a phone call with the customer, even if that call was initiated with the CRM system. Marketing automation can lead to sales, in such instances where a prospective buyer abandons an online shopping cart without checking out. The system can send a well-timed email to the customer offering further discounts or incentives for closing the sale.

Lead management is the core capability of all CRM platforms. Lead management can track and manage prospective customers (often called leads or “opportunities”) across lead generation and acquisition throughout the sales pipeline. Some CRM software providers use a greater degree of marketing automation to trigger actions and sales stages based on lead progression. Lead management is a part of all CRM platforms but how the provider handles it can make a big difference.

Some CRM platforms have email marketing built in while others can connect with a third-party service, such as Campaigner or Mailchimp. Automation can also play a part in email marketing, where an action by a prospect, lead, or customer, triggers an email or email campaign. For example, if a user signs up for a webinar on your website, then that can trigger a series of emails about what to do next. Likewise, if a user cancels their account, then that action can trigger an off-boarding campaign that prompts them to save their data or it can trigger an incentive campaign offering discounts or other perks if they decide not to cancel after all. Automation can also mean changing the status of a customer or prospect based on an action on their part.

Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) are also starting to show up in CRM software. Sales Creatio uses automation and predictive technology to remind users to complete tasks and guide them what to do next. Salesforce launched its Einstein AI-based business intelligence (BI) platform, which can also provide automation across email management, lead and opportunity scoring, and forecasting. These technologies have a huge potential to save time and to help sales teams perform even better.

Third-Party Integrations are Key

It’s important to determine which features are included with your subscription and which require a third-party add-on. It’s also worth looking at the software you already use to see if it’s compatible with the CRM software you’re considering. Maybe you already have email marketing software that you love or you want to connect your cloud storage service, lead management tool, or customer service management platform. As we’ve mentioned, you’ll definitely want to be able to connect your email account and perhaps your calendar, too.

Another excellent example of a value-add integration with CRM would be your product support or helpdesk platform. Next to your sales staff, your product support professionals probably have the most direct contact with your customers and the information they gather in the course of even a short conversation can be gold to a salesperson. Problems with one product line can mean upsell opportunities to another. 

Integration today takes two basic forms. The easiest is if the CRM system or the system to which you’re trying to connect supports the other as a “native” integration. That simply means that the company in question has a prebuilt integration module you can simply select, download, and implement as needed. You’ll have the best luck with big-name targets here as many companies pre-build integrations for companies such as NetSuite or Salesforce, for example.

The other method is that, if both system support an open application programming interface (API), usually one based on Representational State Transfer (REST). With an API, you can have your in-house IT staff (provided they can do some coding) or an out-of-house contract programmer build a custom integration for you. That option certainly provides the most flexibility and customization but it can also add significant cost depending on the level of your coding talent.

Reporting and Analytics with Visualizations and Dashboards

Once you’ve been using CRM software to manage your leads and deals, you can see how successful you’ve been and where you’re falling short. Look for CRM software with reporting features that can be customized so that you can see how employees are performing and which types of customers are responding. Look for a tool that lets you export reports if you need to present high-level data to company stakeholders.

Next, take that API or native integration and plug it into whatever business intelligence (BI) tool your organization likes best. That’s because BI can turn that humdrum CSV or PDF file reporting data into live data visualizations and IT dashboards. These can keep you, your sales team, and anyone else with access to the CRM data completely current on sales statistics, demographic information, product popularity, and any number of other metrics. Additionally, only today’s BI tools let you combine data from multiple sources—such as your CRM database on one side of the business and your warehouse and supply chain on the other—and ask complex queries that take multiple data sources into account to provide new insights that any one data source simply couldn’t.

Security Should be Top of Mind

Invest in security. There’s no simple way to put it. When you’re working with the sales pipeline and customer data, make sure security is top of mind—especially if you’re using a SaaS-deployed CRM solution (which means not only the app but likely also a big chunk, if not all, of your customer data resides in the cloud). You should feel comfortable with the company’s security requirements. It is a warning sign if your CRM software lets you select a password but doesn’t generate an audit trail whenever someone makes a change, or if it doesn’t let you define the access controls for each user. Customer data is an extremely valuable commodity especially now that customers are more reluctant to part with it. Securing it isn’t just about maintaining privacy; it’s about protecting profitable relationships that directly impact your bottom line.

Integration plays a role here but it’s mostly about research. From an integration standpoint, you can make sure your chosen CRM software can integrate with as much of your current IT security software as possible, such as your identity management system, for example, so your employees can take advantage of single sign-on authentication. But even more important than that is doing your homework. That means digging deep into the vendor’s service level agreement (SLA) and ascertaining exactly where your data resides, who is responsible for its safety, and what happens if there’s a problem. Doing some Google surfing to see whether this vendor has been breached in the past and what their response was is another good indicator of just what you’re getting your data into.

Putting Top CRMs and New Entrants to the Test

In this roundup, we tested some of the most popular CRM software packages on the market today. The packages include Apptivo CRM, Zendesk Sell, Sales Creatio, Freshsales CRM, HubSpot CRM, Insightly CRM, Less Annoying CRM, Capsule CRM, Pipedrive CRM, Salesforce Sales Cloud Lightning Professional, and Zoho CRM. We’ve worked hard to evaluate this CRM software with the aforementioned criteria in mind, so check out each of the reviews below to figure out which package is right for you. All have their strengths and weaknesses—some are geared more toward small to midsize businesses (SMBs) while others have broader email marketing capabilities. Some CRM systems are easier to use out of the box, with simple navigations and standard workflows, while others offer deeper and more complicated degrees of customization. Some are dirt cheap while others can be quite expensive when you start moving up tiers, scaling up your sales workforce, or adding premium functionality.

Our top three selections remain Apptivo CRM, Sales Cloud Lightning Professional, and Zoho CRM, which have all earned the Editors’ Choice distinction for balanced feature sets and thoughtful integration features. Not all CRM solutions fit all business needs’ however, this is why surveying the landscape and trying out newer entrants like Capsule CRM or Zendesk Sell (formerly Base CRM) makes sense. New solutions can bring just the right amount of innovation to capture an SMBs attention. In the end, it is the balance of a businesses’ needs, the size and scope of its sales team, and how the company engages with it is customers that will determine the best CRM solution for a business.

Where To Buy

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‘The Computer Got It Wrong’: How Facial Recognition Led To A False Arrest In Michigan

‘The Computer Got It Wrong’: How Facial Recognition Led To A False Arrest In Michigan

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Police Wrongly Arrested a Black Man Using Racist Facial Recognition Technology

Police Wrongly Arrested a Black Man Using Racist Facial Recognition Technology

Image: Bill Pugliano (Getty)

In a spectacularly rare admission of likely very common fuckery, police copped to using face recognition to make a wrongful arrest, according to the ACLU, confirming a long-suspected but nearly-impossible-to-prove practice. On Wednesday, the civil rights litigation group lodged a complaint against the Detroit Police Department for allegedly arresting Robert Williams in early January and admitting, only after holding him in a crowded cell overnight, that “the computer must have gotten it wrong.” Williams is Black, and facial recognition software notoriously misidentifies people of color.

In a New York Times story today, reporter Kashmir Hill relates how police arrested Williams, on his lawn and in front of his family, for allegedly stealing five watches valued at $3,800 from a store in October 2018. According to the complaint, the Detroit police had used “blurry” security footage of the crime and matched it to Williams’s driver’s license photo, which they then showed to a security guard who didn’t witness the incident.

The police didn’t give him any reason for the arrest, and told Williams’s wife to “Google it” when she asked where they were taking him. After a night in jail, police interrogated Williams, showed him a surveillance image from the scene, and asked if it was him. It was not, he said, at which point a detective reportedly said, “I guess the computer got it wrong.” According to the Times, Williams was held for several hours after the interrogation.

A Detroit police spokesperson told the Times that the department “does not make arrests based solely on facial recognition,” and that there were witness interviews, a photo lineup, and that “the investigator reviewed video.” That doesn’t square with a subsequent response from the Wayne County prosecutor’s office, confirming that the Detroit Police Department used facial recognition to identify Williams based on the security footage, and that an eyewitness to the crime was not shown the photo line-up (again, based on the facial recognition match).

The office adds that Williams can have the case expunged and his fingerprints removed from the record. In the statement, Prosecutor Kym L. Worthy said that in 2019, the DPD had asked her to adopt their facial recognition “policy” and declined because of the faulty technology and its built-in racial bias. “This case should not have been issued based on the DPD investigation, and for that we apologize,” Worthy wrote. “This does not in any way make up for the hours that Mr. Williams spent in jail.”

G/O Media may get a commission

Reuters reported that it reviewed government documents showing that the police made the match using the Michigan state police’s digital analysis identification section, which reportedly uses facial recognition technology from Rank One Computing. The section’s website notes that it pulls from the Statewide Network of Agency Photos, which specifically states on its own site that facial recognition “should never be considered a form of positive identification.”

As the ACLU points out, this instance is exceptional in part because police never admit to using facial recognition. “Had Robert not heard a glib comment from the officer who was interrogating him, he likely never would have known that his ordeal stemmed from a false face recognition match,” two ACLU attorneys familiar with Williams’ case wrote. “In fact, people are almost never told when face recognition has identified them as a suspect. The FBI reportedly used this technology hundreds of thousands of times — yet couldn’t even clearly answer whether it notified people arrested as a result of the technology.” The police obstructed numerous attempts by Williams’ lawyer to obtain documentation on the arrest.

We’ve known that police have used facial recognition to make arrests in the past; in 2016, the ACLU uncovered an internal marketing document from the social media location tracking company Geofeedia, which bragged that its technology enabled police to use facial recognition to identify Freddie Gray “rioters” with outstanding warrants and arrest them from the crowds. The implications are boundless; just after protests began over George Floyd’s death last month, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the facial recognition company Clearview AI, which provides law enforcement agencies and private companies the ability to match (or “match”) faceprints scraped from social media and even Venmo accounts.

Rank One told Gizmodo that the use of face recognition in Williams’s case “goes against established best practices for forensic face recognition” and that the company “unreservedly opposes” the idea of using facial recognition as the sole basis for arrest. “Moving forward, we will add legal means to prevent uses of our software which violate our Code of Ethics,” they said. They added that they’ll be conducting a technological review of software safeguards to prevent future misuse.

The ACLU demands in its complaint that the Detroit Police Department stop using facial recognition in its investigations, “as the facts of Mr. Williams’ case prove both that the technology is flawed and that DPD investigators are not competent in making use of such technology.”

The Detroit Police Department and the ACLU were unavailable for comment.

Note: This post has been updated to include comment from Rank One.

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Roostify Engages Factual Data to Provide Access to Consumer Credit in Mobile or Desktop Environment

Roostify Engages Factual Data to Provide Access to Consumer Credit in Mobile or Desktop Environment

SAN FRANCISCO–()–The nation’s most trusted digital lending platform, Roostify, announced today a new relationship with Factual Data® as part of an expansion that will allow loan officers to run borrower credit and view findings within the Roostify platform. Loan officers will now be able to make credit and product decisions earlier in the loan lifecycle, even from a mobile device, so the loan process can continue without costly delays associated with switching between multiple software systems.

Credit integration is a key piece of Roostify’s platform capabilities. Credit integration allows loan officers to secure loan products for their clients with accurate, real-time decisioning. A loan officer’s ability to access detailed information from the credit report without needing to be on their desktop computer creates more flexibility and timely customer service to borrowers, in addition to helping borrowers make informed decisions about their loan pipeline. Ease and transparency in verifying borrower eligibility reduces cycle times, lowers origination costs, and increases customer satisfaction.

Simple administrator configuration options allow lenders to choose between credit inquiry types for single-bureau, joint, or tri-merge reports, which extends lenders’ ability to adapt the credit service to their unique business needs.

”Roostify and Factual Data have collaborated to create a seamless integration between technology and critical borrower credit data that is highly valuable in today’s lending climate,” said Factual Data President Jay Giesen. “Now more than ever, a practical digital experience is making an important difference for mortgage lenders.”

“Understanding a borrower’s credit history is an important step in the mortgage lending process,” said Travis Kniffen, Director of Platform Partnerships at Roostify. “By leveraging industry leader Factual Data for real-time insight within the Roostify platform, lenders can make informed decisions at the time of application and reduce time-to-close cycles.”

About Factual Data

Factual Data is a Tier One provider of credit, risk mitigation, flood, and verification services to the mortgage industry. Leveraging innovative technology and deep industry experience, Factual Data simplifies the mortgage lending process for its customers and their borrowers. For information, please visit www.factualdata.com or follow them on social media at LinkedIn.

About Roostify

Founded by consumers looking for a better way to buy a home, Roostify leads the industry in delivering accelerated and transparent digital lending experiences, processing nearly $35 billion a month in loans. From enterprise banks to independent mortgage lenders, lenders across the United States rely on Roostify to speed up closings, reduce risk and unnecessary work, and improve their customers’ lending experience. The company’s highly secure, future-proof lending platform is trusted by some of the world’s largest lenders. For more information, please visit www.roostify.com or follow them on social media at LinkedIn or Twitter @Roostify.

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Here’s how employers are using tech tools to keep a close watch on their remote workers

Here’s how employers are using tech tools to keep a close watch on their remote workers

Comstock Images | Stockbyte | Getty Images

One benefit of the lockdown triggered by the coronavirus epidemic has been a renewed enthusiasm for working at home. Forced to let millions of employees work from home to avoid contagion, companies that had been hesitant about taking that step have concluded they can benefit from telecommuters, after all.

Companies from American Express and Facebook to Twitter and Zillow are now embracing a work-from-home culture, extending that option to employees even as confinement rules are lifted.

One of the main drivers behind this shift is the economic incentive. According to a survey by software maker Atlas VPN, monitoring a single employee working remotely costs about $7 a month, and having an employee work from home half the time can save an employer $11,000 a year in increased productivity, lower real estate costs and reduced absenteeism, according to Global Workplace Analytics, a consultant on workplace trends and strategies.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, just 3.6% of U.S. workers regularly worked from home. But according to Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics, many more U.S. workers could work remotely than actually do.

She cites a recent study by two University of Chicago economists in which they estimated that 37% of U.S. jobs could be done completely from home. Lister estimated that 56% of employees hold a job compatible, at least partially, with remote work. And employees have long been more enthusiastic than their bosses in working from home. Lister cites a survey indicating that 80% of employees would like to work from home at least part of the time. “Our prediction is that the longer people are required to work at home, the greater the adoption we will see when the dust settles,” she said. 

A recent survey conducted by CNBC among technology executives across a wide variety of industries indicates that while many employees may be heading back to offices in September, that is not because remote work has led to a decline in worker productivity. In fact, 48% of respondents to the CNBC Technology Executive Council survey for Q2 2020 said that team productivity had increased since the pandemic began. Forty percent said it had remained the same, while 12% cited a productivity decrease. 

The CNBC survey also found 72% of technology executives saying that team workloads had increased more and everyone was working harder. Firms are also ramping up remote-work resources, with 68% saying their remote capabilities were better than when the pandemic began, and 40% saying remote technology resources were “much better.” Twenty-five of the 146 members of the CNBC Technology Executive Council responded to this survey, which was conducted from June 3–15, 2020.

Keeping tabs on the untethered

Technology has made working from home easier, with widely adopted applications like Zoom and Slack enabling cooperation with co-workers and clients. Technology has also enabled managers to overcome their greatest objection to not having their employees in the office. “One of the biggest holdbacks of remote work is trust — managers simply don’t trust their people to work untethered,” said Lister. “They’re used to managing by counting butts in seats rather than by results. “

Companies such as ActiveTrak, Hivedesk,  Teramind, Time Doctor and WorkExaminer enable companies to track the activities of their employees by installing software on their computers. Most monitoring software will track keystrokes, email, file transfers, applications used and how much time the employee spends on each task. Most will take periodic screenshots to let managers know what is on the employee’s screen.

One of the biggest holdbacks of remote work is trust — managers simply don’t trust their people to work untethered. They’re used to managing by counting butts in seats rather than by results. “

Kate Lister

president of Global Workplace Analytics

“Organizations want to make sure that users working from home are actually being productive on company time,” said Eli Sutton, vice president of operations at Teramind, a six-year-old Miami-based company that sells monitoring software. During the pandemic the level of interest in Teramind has tripled, said Sutton.

In its promotional material, Teramind promises to monitor “all employee activity covering 12+ system objects, like web pages, applications, email, console commands, file transfers, instant messaging, social media, keystrokes, clipboard, searches, printing and even on-screen content in real time.” The company offers a “revealed agent” that is visible to the employee and a “hidden agent” that performs certain security functions.

Invasion of privacy?

If monitoring sounds invasive, it’s not limited to those working remotely. Employees in the U.S. don’t have many privacy rights. “When you’re on your office computer, you have no privacy at all,” said Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute. “Anything and everything you do is probably monitored by your boss.”

Maltby, a former director of employment rights at the ACLU, said the courts generally have supported the view that if you work on company equipment, your data belongs to the company. This sweeping view is based on the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986, drawn up at a time before desktop computers were common.

“Electronic communications in 1986 was the telephone.” Lewis notes that some monitoring systems let you log off the corporate network to perform personal tasks and log back on, but few employees remember to do that. Alternatively, employees can use a personal wireless device (cellphone) to assure that communication is private.

European privacy laws are more up to date and far more strict. Under the General Data Protection Regulations, adopted in 2016, individuals living in the European Union have far more control of their data, where it is stored and can even ask to have data removed if they disagree with its accuracy. One software vendor noted that by simply marking a document private, a worker in Europe can place it off limits to an employer — even on a company-owned device.

Maltby is pessimistic about tightening U.S. privacy laws to give employees more protection. He says he spent 20 years at the ACLU trying to get Congress to act. “If you take a poll, most people will say they care about privacy, but if you look in the average Congressman’s mailbox, there’s nothing about privacy,” said Maltby. “Constituent silence on issues of privacy is deafening.”

Managing with trust and empathy

The greatest challenge may be how to best manage remote workers. Rachel Welch, the chief operating officer of Atlas VPN, said managers “should go into remote work conditions with trust and empathy, not with fear and close monitoring.” Companies unaccustomed to remote workers often set strict work-from-home guidelines. But Welch warned, “This might lead to an authoritarian style of management, which puts a lot of pressure on the employees.” The best approach, says Lister of Global Workplace Analytics, is what management consultants have been advocating for decades: setting goals and managing by results.

The wrong approach to monitoring can have a profound effect on morale. Dustin (not his real name) is an IT manager at a midsized specialty printer. Before joining his current firm, he worked for more than a decade at another company. Although he worked from home a lot, he was loosely managed. When he joined his current employer a year ago, he discovered that he had to clock in and out on a virtual time clock and that his company-issued laptop was closely monitored (screen snapshots every 30 minutes, for example).

At his previous employer, Dustin says he took ownership of everything and worked as long as necessary to complete a task. Now, he said of the close supervision, “It doesn’t make me inclined to check something at 8 o’clock in the evening.”

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Intel Says ‘Tiger Lake’ Will Drown Control-Flow Malware

Intel Says ‘Tiger Lake’ Will Drown Control-Flow Malware

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The next generation of Intel mobile processors will include malware protection built into the chip, the company announced Monday.

The protection, provided by Intel’s Control-Flow Enforcement Technology (CET), will first be available in the company’s “Tiger Lake” mobile processors, Vice President of Intel’s Client Computing Group Tom Garrison revealed.

CET is designed to protect against the misuse of legitimate code through control-flow hijacking attacks, which is widely used in large classes of malware, he explained.

Of the 1.097 vulnerabilities Trend Micro discovered through its Zero Day Initiative from 2019 to today, 63.2 percent were related to memory safety.

“As more proactive protections are built into the Windows OS, attackers are shifting their efforts to exploit memory safety vulnerabilities by hijacking the integrity of the control flow,” noted David Weston, director of Enterprise and OS Security at Microsoft.

“As an opt-in feature in Windows 10, Microsoft has worked with Intel to offer hardware-enforced stack protection that builds on the extensive exploit protection built into Windows 10,” he explained, ” to enforce code integrity as well as terminate any malicious code.”

Chip-Level Attacks

With control-flow protections built into Intel’s hardware, it will be possible to detect memory attacks earlier in the process, noted Ray Vinson, senior product manager at
Spirent, a telecommunications testing company in Sunnyvale, California.

“The attacker is making chip-level calls to initiate the memory attack. Software sees those calls, but only after they’re made,” he told TechNewsWorld.

“By addressing the attack at the chip level, you’re preventing the calls from ever taking place and preventing any resources from being taken up by the attack,” Vinson explained.

“Memory overflow and software overflow attacks have been around as threats for years. By addressing this at the chip level, it starts to take this out as an option for the hacker,” he added.

Among the leading malware attacks currently mounted by hackers are “fileless” attacks, where malicious code is loaded directly into memory, noted James McQuiggan, security awareness advocate for
KnowBe4, a security awareness training provider in Clearwater, Florida.

“This style is difficult for antimalware applications to detect, since they look for binary, executable applications running from a hard drive,” he told TechNewsWorld.

“Having the hardware join the fight against malicious software can decrease the successful attacks against endpoints in an organization’s infrastructure,” McQuiggan said. “It adds another layer of protection between the human and the operating system’s protective software to secure the endpoint and prevent a malware attack.”

Building security into the hardware architecture makes it much harder for an attacker to write successful exploits, said Nilesh Dherange, CTO of
Gurucul, a risk intelligence company at El Segundo, California.

“This is a good move, potentially mitigating entire families of malware threats,” he told TechNewsWorld.

No Silver Bullet

There can be advantages and disadvantages to baking security into hardware, noted Malek Ben Salem, Americas Security R&D lead for
Accenture, a professional services company based in Dublin.

“Software is more flexible. You can deploy it on more architectures, and you can deploy it faster,” she told TechNewsWorld.

“In hardware, though, you get less performance degradation, and it’s more effective in these kinds of attacks,” Ben Salem continued.

Organizations should take care not to embrace the technology too rapidly, cautioned KnowBe4’s McQuiggan.

“What impact will the hardware have from falsely stopping instructions because it was considered an attack?” he asked. “While this is a new technology, organizations will want to make sure it’s adequately configured for their environments and not just expect it to stop all malware.”

CET is no silver bullet against all attacks, warned Chris Clements, vice president of solutions architecture at
Cerberus Sentinel, a
cybersecurity consulting and penetration testing company in Scottsdale, Arizona.

“Attackers routinely find ways to circumvent security protections, and depending on Intel’s implementation, the safeguards may turn out to be trivial to bypass,” he told TechNewsWorld.

“Further, many breaches and ransomware attacks come not from cybercriminals exploiting vulnerable software, but rather from configuration errors like open S3 buckets, weak user passwords, and social engineering attacks like phishing,” Clements continued. “In these cases, no advanced exploit development is necessary to compromise their victim’s systems or data.”

Living in a Software-Defined World

Added security in silicon is always a welcome addition, especially when dealing with memory re-use and buffer overflows, but it needs to be put in perspective.

“There is a long history of chipmakers over-reaching on embedding security in the chip and promising security gains that haven’t been there. McAfee’s acquisition by Intel was such a case,” observed Greg Young, vice president of cybersecurity at
Trend Micro, a cybersecurity solutions provider headquartered in Tokyo.

“So, hardware-assisted control flow is good, especially for embedded devices, but not a game-changer, as infrastructure and endpoints have never been self-defending and the bulk of attacks don’t involve this vector,” he told TechNewsWorld.

“It’s a software-defined world, and with so much software in the stack, there’s a lot of vulnerabilities to go after that don’t involve the chip,” Young said.

There’s another potential snag for CET, Dherange pointed out.

“The implementation, as described, is an opt-in solution, which means that some developers won’t expend the effort needed to integrate with CET,” he said. “That would leave their applications potentially vulnerable.”

Nevertheless, “given the prevalence of ‘memory safety’ vulnerabilities that CET addresses, this could be of huge benefit. The challenge will be how tightly developers adhere to it,” Dherange maintained.

CET isn’t the only way to combat memory-based attacks, said Joe Saunders, CEO of
RunSafe Security, an embedded systems security company in McLean, Virginia.

“Once developers start deploying on such hardware, they will need to consider the tradeoffs in performance overhead when considering enabling these protections at the hardware level,” he told TechNewsWorld.

“There are alternative approaches, such as function-level load time randomization, that eliminate memory-based attacks without overhead performance impact or trade off,” Saunders said.

CET won’t eliminate software protections and malware and antivirus tools, Accenture’s Ben Salem explained.

“This is another layer of defense that’s monitoring what’s happening in real time,” she said, “compared to software tools that are looking at malware files upline or in a sandbox environment.”

John P. Mello Jr. has been an ECT News Network reporter
since 2003. His areas of focus include cybersecurity, IT issues, privacy, e-commerce, social media, artificial intelligence, big data and consumer electronics. He has written and edited for numerous publications, including the Boston Business Journal, the
Boston Phoenix, Megapixel.Net and Government
Security News
. Email John.

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A Comprehensible Guide to Real-Time Features in Mobile App Development

A Comprehensible Guide to Real-Time Features in Mobile App Development

The rapid development of computer technology has led to the fact that the developed devices have become more complex and include a large number of functions. It became possible to develop devices that meet modern requirements thanks to progress in the field of design technologies and a significant reduction in the cost of the elemental base.

Introduction to Real-Time Systems 

Real-time features are nowadays necessary for a successful mobile app. There are a large number of real-time operating modules, and they all perform one task – managing a system. Below, we listed some of the most important features of the real-time operating app nowadays.

Live Stream

Today’s businesses have retained a much-needed long-term vision, and one such example is a streaming application. Real-time video streaming applications are the result of a thoughtful approach and allow web or mobile applications to produce and transmit data to users to create deep user interaction.

Real-Time Messaging Service

Real-time data is what people today request, and this is one of the main reasons why application developers make real-time functions development their priority. What follows is a real-time messaging feature, which can also be called the foundation of instant messaging.

Real Order Status

The function of tracking the status of the order in real-time is responsible for providing additional benefits to various industries, consisting of companies engaged in shipping and delivery on demand. Using the function of tracking current orders, users can keep abreast of the updated status of their orders.

Push Up

Push notifications are small pop-ups on the screen of a mobile device.  They can appear on the screen of any device where there is a notification area, or it is possible to display data received from the Internet. Such notifications allow you to promptly notify the user of ongoing changes if the application is in a closed state.

IoT Device Integration and Manageability

With the growth of real-time technologies, there has been an increase in the integration of real-time functions in IoT mobile applications. IoT is a perfect example of what real-time systems are capable of. It works as follows:

  1. Data is collected by IoT devices or sensors.

  2. Sending data to the cloud storage via Wi-Fi or a cellular network.

  3. Data Analysis performed by advanced IoT software.

  4. The user receives the data.

If the data sent is incorrect or any errors have occurred, a warning message is sent to users using various means, such as text messages, application notifications, emails, etc.

Collaboration Among Multiple Users

Real-time features in mobile applications allow adding, deleting, updating, and editing data for several users at a time. In addition, it facilitates the execution of tasks involving various team members, and also makes it possible to instantly receive feedback on updated data.

Real-Time Communication

People all over the world use their mobile phones to interact with others. Services such as instant messaging, pre-calls, real-time video, and real-time file or photo-sharing have expanded significantly.

Real-time functionality is what major social networks now provide to their users. Social media apps, such as Instagram and Snapchat, provide functions of real-time feeds, using which, users are notified instantly, once a certain piece of content is published in the feed. 

Real-Time Features Implementation

The use of WebSocket technology is the best solution for the real-time mobile application development process. However, such a solution may lead to an increased waste of device resources; moreover, it is difficult to implement from a software point of view. When a user closes a mobile application with real-time system functions, he/she expects that the application will continue to work in the background and will notify of existing changes. To implement such functionality using only WebSocket technology, it is necessary to create a background service that is separate from the application and constantly maintains a connection to the server.

To notify the user about important events in the application, even when it is closed, there is a Firebase Cloud Messaging (FCM) service that facilitates the exchange of messages between mobile and server applications. To use this service, the developer needs to register his mobile application and implement the required software interface in the code of his application. The service allows for the full and selective distribution of push notifications both from personal accounts and through the application programming interface (API). The service assigns each client device a unique registration key, and also provides a unique server key. 

Thus, the best solutions for organizing a real-time mobile application are:

  • using the usual HTTP requests to receive archived (unchangeable) data;

  • using the WebSocket protocol to track data changes in real-time; 

  • keeping an open connection only on some pages of the application to save resources;  

  • using the Firebase Cloud Messaging service to notify of data changes on the server in the event of a closed WebSocket connection.

A Glimpse Into the Future

In the future, architectures that focus on event flows and process them in real-time will be ubiquitous. Technically advanced companies, such as Netflix, Uber, Goldman Sachs, Bloomberg, etc., have already set up the large-scale operation of such large streaming event processing platforms. No matter how loud it may sound, some experts believe that the advent of streaming processing and event-driven architectures will affect the model of data usage by companies as much as relational databases did in their time. 

An event-oriented way of thinking and creating event-driven applications oriented to stream processing requires a certain change in worldview from those who are used to request/response applications and relational databases.  Stream processing entails a fundamental transition from team-oriented thinking to event-oriented thinking, which allows you to create fast-responding, event-driven, expandable, flexible applications for working in real-time.  

From the point of view of business failure, event-driven thinking paves the way for organizations to take decisions and real-time operations in a context-sensitive manner.  From the point of view of technology, event-oriented mice make it possible to create more autonomous and disengaged applications and, consequently, adaptively scaled and expandable systems.  

In both cases, the ultimate goal is to facilitate tasks for businesses. 

Final Word

Today, experts in the field of information technology are developing mobile applications that allow you to solve a huge number of problems simultaneously and in real-time. From new start-ups to successful app development companies, enterprises prioritize the integration of real-time features into their apps to reach a high level of digitalization. Real-time features are also preferred by both companies and end-users, as they provide easy, fast, and reliable services. This trend has resulted in an increased demand for real-time functions in numerous industries, such as healthcare, logistics, social media, etc.


app developer
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Opinions expressed by DZone contributors are their own.

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Julian Assange’s U.S. Extradition and Bitcoin’s Battle for Freedom of the Internet

Julian Assange’s U.S. Extradition and Bitcoin’s Battle for Freedom of the Internet

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is currently being held on remand in a London maximum-security prison, solely on the basis of a U.S. extradition request. Assange has been charged with 17 counts of espionage related to WikiLeaks’ 2010 to 2011 publications concerning the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, embarrassing U.S. diplomatic communications and evidence of torture in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.

Assange’s U.S. extradition case is recognized by free speech groups as the most important press freedom case of the 21st century. As the aggressive judicial overreach of this U.S. government is already creating a chilling effect on reporters and media organizations, some recognize consequences far beyond the future of journalism.

Julian Assange’s father, John Shipton, who regularly attends cryptocurrency conferences, has warned those who are involved in the development of new technologies that they are not immune to suffering the same fate as his son. 

How does the prosecution of Assange threaten the crypto movement? And why does the Bitcoin community need to be concerned about his plight for freedom?

Innovative Endeavor

At its heart, WikiLeaks is an innovative endeavor. Started as a project of Sunshine Press, it was an invention of a new form of journalism built on the platform of the internet. On its website’s “About” page, WikiLeaks described how it started with an online dialogue between activists around the world, who shared their aspiration to eliminate injustice and human suffering caused by the abuses of power of corporations and governments, especially oppressive regimes.

WikiLeaks also acknowledges the efforts of Philip Zimmerman, the creator of an encryption software program known as Pretty Good Privacy, or PGP, and how the vision of this lone computer programmer in Colorado instigated a global revolution for mass distribution of privacy technologies.

Inspired by this pioneer of private and secure online communication, the founding members of WikiLeaks sought for a way to deploy information technologies to create a robust system of publishing that protects the anonymity of sources and enables transparency of the powerful. This new journalistic organization aimed to make “document leaking technology” available at a global scale in order to better bring accountability to governments and other institutions.

The Crypto Wars

History has shown how new ideas and inventions are often met with opposition and fierce condemnation by the state. At the start of the 1990s, when Zimmermann released PGP, the U.S. government considered what he had done the equivalent of exporting munitions. It launched a three-year criminal investigation against him, creating a battle over encryption that became known to some as “The Crypto Wars.” The case was eventually dropped when U.S. courts ruled that software source code qualifies as speech protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Two decades later, WikiLeaks’ efforts to amplify information technologies to tackle the problem of government secrecy created another global revolution, this time disrupting the media landscape. Like its forerunner, this new free press of the digital age soon became a target of political retaliation.

After WikiLeaks released classified documents that revealed U.S. war crimes, the U.S. government decided that its editor-in-chief had damaged national security, though it produced no shred of evidence that the published documents caused any harm. It effectively declared war on the First Amendment, charging an Australian journalist under the Espionage Act in the District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. Just as in the first Crypto War, where it tried to ban encryption, it was now trying to shut down WikiLeaks.

Cypherpunk Philosophy

What is this new Crypto War — now being waged against the whistleblowing site — all about? This battle is not just about Assange as an individual. While mainstream media fixates on Assange and his character, WikiLeaks is not driven solely by one charismatic man. Behind the organization, there are thousands of ordinary people worldwide who are dedicated to the principle of freedom of speech.

At the end of 2010, when WikiLeaks began publishing troves of sensitive U.S. diplomatic cables, its website came under heavy pressure by the U.S. government and its allies. Insurgency swiftly emerged from deep inside the web to help WikiLeaks counteract distributed-denial-of-service (DDOS) attacks. By keeping multiple copies of its website, and setting up mirror sites, anonymous networks allowed information to continue to flow. 

Inspiring those collective acts of resistance in an underground subculture of the internet are shared values and ideals, embodied in the cypherpunk philosophy. Emerging in the late 1980s, the cypherpunk movement is a loosely tied group of mathematicians, computer scientists and online activists who advocate privacy through the use of strong cryptography.

Shifting the Balance of Power

Assange is known to have joined the cypherpunk mailing list in late 1993 or early 1994. His engagement with those on the edges on the internet had a large influence on his intellectual development. The native Australian software programmer and expert in cryptography once summed up the core values behind WikiLeaks by saying, “capable, generous men do not create victims, they nurture victims.”

He acknowledged this is something that he learned from his own father and other capable, generous men in his life. This moral value, installed at an early age, found practical application in the cypherpunks’ core belief: “Cryptography can be a key tool for protecting individual autonomy threatened by power.” 

In his 2006 essay “Conspiracy as Governance”, a kind of manifesto from which WikiLeaks was conceived, Assange analyzed the structure of power and means to shift the balance of power between the individual and the state. By using cryptography as a “non-violent democratic weapon that gives claws to the weak,” Assange found a way to provide information to the public, to hold the powerful accountable, and to help ordinary people empower themselves with knowledge.

Ethics of Cryptography

Cypherpunks saw the political implications of their work and strove for proper use of the power inherent in cryptography. This attitude has shaped the ethics of cryptographers and defined cypherpunk cryptography as “crypto with values.”

Eric Hughes who, in 1992, co-founded the influential cypherpunk mailing list, together with Timothy C. May and John Gilmore, described those values as openness, the free flow of information and decentralization. In “A Cypherpunk’s Manifesto,” published in 1993, he declared that “code is free for all to use, worldwide.” Assange also articulated the moral values of cypherpunks, noting “the whole point of free software is to liberate it in all senses.” He added that, “It’s part of the intellectual heritage of man. True intellectual heritage can’t be bound up in intellectual property.”

Instead of claiming ownership of their knowledge, cypherpunks aimed to build software on a ground of free sharing and open platforms, in which everyone can participate and make contributions to the development and utilization.

Zimmermann gave PGP away online, making the source code free and freely available. Through people all over the world simply downloading and using it, the decentralization of that technology helped to secure the right to privacy at a large scale. By deploying an anonymous, secure drop box, WikiLeaks made it possible for people around the globe to speak out against their governments’ wrongdoing without fear of their identity being revealed. Courage of whistleblowers became contagious, creating waves of disclosures. WikiLeaks, powered by free software, began to liberate information that had been captured under the proprietary ownership of corporations and governments.

Shared Fate

It is with this cypherpunk vision of ethics that Satoshi Nakamoto, the pseudonymous creator of Bitcoin, also published its white paper online. The invention of Bitcoin, a peer-to-peer electronic cash system, unleashed the revolutionary power of cryptography. This community-driven, free software project set in motion a decentralized movement to liberate money from the monopoly of central banks. By people across the world simply choosing to run full nodes, each containing a complete record of all Bitcoin transactions, a network secures this stateless digital cash as a form of free speech that belongs to everyone.

Years before the U.S. government’s assault on free speech escalated into the indictment against the WikiLeaks founder, the mysterious creator of Bitcoin recognized the potential fate that would befall the world’s first global Fourth Estate. 

In December 2010, WikiLeaks faced the unlawful financial blockade imposed by private payment processing companies, and the organization was considering using Bitcoin to circumvent it. Satoshi, who was concerned about the risk of drawing unwanted government attention to his then infant currency, appealed to WikiLeaks not to take such action.

In an online post, Satoshi noted that, “WikiLeaks has kicked the hornet’s nest, and the swarm is headed towards us.”

WikiLeaks eventually did turn to Bitcoin to achieve financial sovereignty. And now the swarm is now getting larger, bringing a new war on cryptography. 

Currency of Resistance

The citizens of the internet have been longing for another world, independent from the old world of exploitation, violence and control. Dreams for freenet, for the internet to become an emancipatory tool for building peer-to-peer systems, have united people around the world together in the frontier of cyberspace.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government’s prosecution of Assange is a direct attack on freedom of expression; people’s ability to form and exchange ideas and collaborate creatively. What is now being threatened is our shared values and a vision for the future of the internet at the heart of Bitcoin’s decentralized consensus.

Bitcoin, from its inception, was a political act. This is shown in the highly politicized message in the genesis block, referring to a banking bailout. In the lively discussion of public cryptography in 1992 on the cypherpunk mailing list, the late Hal Finney, a noted cryptographer who is considered to be one of the earliest Bitcoin pioneers, reminded us of the ethical responsibility of cryptographers:

“The computer can be used as a tool to liberate and protect people, rather than to control them,”  Finney, who received the very first bitcoin transaction sent by Satoshi, wrote, urging Bitcoin early adopters to put their “unearned wealth to good use.”

Now, as Assange’s U.S. extradition battle intensifies, the internet is calling for the rise of cypherpunks ‚ Assange’s fellow “capable generous men,” who exercise their power for social good to unite once again and take up their moral duty. The future of the internet believes in Bitcoin, the potential of this “crypto with values” to become the currency of resistance to defend its freedom.

Author’s Note: WikiLeaks has launched the official campaign page, “Don’t Extradite Assange.” You can get information on how you can help stop Assange’s extradition. Please consider donating to the WikiLeaks official Defense Fund and take action.

This is a guest post by Nozomi Hayase. Opinions expressed are entirely her own and do not necessarily reflect those of BTC Inc or Bitcoin Magazine.

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