October is cybersecurity month in the US,

7 Oct

…but it is unlikely consumers will actually be reached by useful information in a meaningful way. Yes, there is a cast of lip-service websites mentioned in a press release or a blog post by most relevant companies and government agencies, but chances of actually improving online safety are extremely low from what I can tell so far.

The state of online safety education (even the term “cybersecurity” totally misses the point here) can be summarized by a simile: It’s like telling obese Americans that cooking with quinua is healthier than rice when what you need to tell them is to START COOKING.

The most shockingly inadequate is the antiphishing.org website by the The Anti-Phishing Working Group (APWG), an industry association. An average internet user would have a seizure and close the browser window in fear upon hitting their homepage.

StaySafeOnline.org by National Cyber Security Alliance, endorsed by major companies like Microsoft and government agencies like Homeland Security, looks a little more soothing, with slightly higher chances of captivating a curious visitor eager to learn more about “how to stay safe online”.

However, actually trying to get information is a little harder. The website offers a deadly mix of condescending tone and content that is out of touch with an average reader’s technical comfort level. Take this leading paragraph in the “Home” subsection:

Most households now run networks of devices linked to the Internet, including computers, laptops, gaming devices, TV’s or set top boxes, and cell phones that access wireless networks. To protect your home network and your family while they’re online you need to have the right tools in place and confidence that family members can surf safely and securely. Make sure you know the basics of securing your home network and your family’s privacy.

Kindergarten tone yet no direct practical information.

Or, take this LONG ESSAY about “email safety”. After five introductory paragraphs with filler text such as “Email has become a critical way to communicate with friends and families and conduct business – it’s quick, convenient, and effective,” the author slowly reveals that it’d be good to turn on your spam filter: “In many cases these are set to “on” by default, but if they’re not, you can easily activate by finding your filtering preferences tab, or using your program’s “help” tool.” OK, how about actual instructions on how to do that in major email clients?

The section about “phishing”, perhaps one of the most prevalent and worrying online threats right now, comes after enduring paragraphs of patronizing prose about avoiding spam using spam filters. The author clearly ran out of steam by now, since what “phishing” is is explained in one short paragraph that sounds like it’s lifted out of a dictionary, with no examples or juice in it. The instructions make sense, but I am convinced that an average internet user, if they are still reading this far by some miracle, would be left largely helpless. Tips like “Do not send sensitive information over the Internet before checking a Web site’s security.” are pointless without instructions. Every child knows that if something is “safe” and “secure” that’s good, but most people don’t know how to ascertain that. “Pay attention to the URL of a web site. Malicious web sites may look identical to a legitimate site, but the URL may use a variation in spelling or a different domain (e.g., .com versus .net).” Come on! Why not say “the link” or “address in browser” and where and at which point to pay attention? And my favorite: “Information about known phishing attacks is available online from groups such as the Anti-Phishing Working Group.” No hyperlink?!?

I can just see this author imagining reading this essay to a group of captive preschoolers with a soothing tone.

Educating the internet public about online threats requires an approach that is the exact opposite of this: respectful and succinct, informed by a deep understanding of your audience and delivered with the same care afforded to highly-target and effective marketing messages.

However, I get to conclude with a bit of good news. Surprisingly, the best website I found is brought to us by the federal government. Maintained by the Federal Trade Commission, onguardonline.gov is packed with tips, games and videos, delivered in a well-designed, energetic, and to-the-point manner.



29 Sep

I just read about the launch of a new music-related start-up called playlistnow.fm and decided to give it a whirl.

None of my friends are apparently on it yet, so I can’t vouch for its social features, but it’s supposed to help you find new music through discovering other people’s playlists. This is in theory good idea, but it hinges on what the incentives to create and share a playlist are. I didn’t find any in this case. I’ve been thinking about music discovery a lot lately, because I’m in somewhat of a music slump and because I have a weak spot for awesome party playlists so perhaps I will post my own thoughts on that soon.

But back to playlistnow.fm. My review is not entirely positive, perhaps because a terrible song just came on while I’m trying it out, but I’m intrigued.

Using the search bar on the homepage I somehow stumbled upon the “Chilling in the garden” playlist, which I chose to check out, since I’m doing the exact opposite – sitting in an office on a very cold day.

So what are my next available actions? I can listen to the playlist, of course. Three other prominent features jump out as well – I can add songs to the playlist (though it doesn’t show who added which song, which would be a neat feature), or share it with friends, or update my status with “I’m chilling in the garden”. I hit the “update status” button, which takes me away from the playlist and to my profile. Usability fail.

I went back to the playlist to finish checking it out. There is a whole bunch of bad songs on this playlist, but that is besides the point. The bigger problem is that there’s no apparent relation or order between them. Since I don’t know who added them there and when, this makes it confusing and allienating. Also, the site just froze.

After a deep breath, I refreshed the site and returned to the home page. I clicked on the “I’m in a french mood” playlist because it was the first link in my feed. In order to check out the “add song” feature, I decided to add a song by St. Germaine to the list. I clicked on “add song”, a search bar popped up underneath the button (neat execution but the overload of purple and low contrast between background and action buttons make it kind of a pain to look at or use), and I searched for “st. germaine”. About a 100 results for songs returned, all seem to be french, but not a single one of them St. Germaine. Perhaps they don’t have any of their music in their library, but given that some of the search results were youtube videos, I’m tempted to assume that they are searching all of youtube not just some strange undefined subset.

So anyways, I clicked on a Serge Gainsbourg search result instead. Something started playing, but at this point I have no idea if I’m looking at the search results, the French playlist, or something else, or whether the song I clicked on was added. I clicked on another song. No change.

With a weird French song still playing, I decided to give the site one more swirl. I typed “I’m pissed off” into the search box and hit enter. Nothing. I clicked the “search now” button just in case enter doesn’t work on this heavily flash-y site. Still nothing. Several seconds later (after I wrote the first part of this paragraph) I see some results for playlists that match my search. Weird French song still playing. I click on the “Pissed off” playlist. Weird french song still playing until I finally click on a small play button next to the title of the playlist.

OK, at this point I’m a grumpy user and I’m on the site only because I’m trying to review it. I would have left a long time ago otherwise, mostly because of the serious site performance issues, off-putting color scheme, and dead-end user path bugs. I haven’t even gotten to describing the plethora of other actions you can take on each page, which may or may not work, but either way add to the overwhelming user experience. This site is a classic example of a glossy design gone wrong and lack of serious consideration for information architecture and functional user experience.

Now I just really want to listen to the Rage Against the Machine song on the Pissed Off playlist but it’s been several minutes and it’s still not playing. In frustration, I go find it on youtube.

That said, it’s a nice idea 🙂

Bill Gates, Warren Buffett talking about philanthropy in China

29 Sep

US billionaires Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have hosted a dinner in Beijing for some of China’s richest people.

The pair said they wanted to learn about philanthropy in the country. But many suspected they want to persuade their guests to give more to charity.

from BBC

This is interesting. I wonder what comes out of it. I’d love to learn more about philanthropy in China.

11 concerns about “technology” for “social good”

27 Sep

A very thoughtful post on Wait… What? that summarizes many issues I’ve been thinking about recently as well as many more I haven’t thought of. Should be required reading for ict4d peeps.

Tech volunteers and disasters

27 Sep

Ethan Zuckerman, a researcher at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, wrote an interesting post on tech volunteers in crises. Talking specifically about CrisisCommons, he made several good points about opportunities and obstacles for technology professionals volunteering on disaster relief projects. I believe his observations apply to the broader area of technologist focusing their attentions on “social good” as well.

He observes what I also noticed, but in other, non-disaster relief, areas of the non-profit sector:

It’s genuinely very difficult for tech volunteers to know what problems to work on… and hard for relief organizations under tremendous pressure to learn how to use these new tools.

he toughest job is defining problems and matching geeks to [them].

… this requires relief organizations to know what solutions are already out there and what are reasonable requests to make of volunteers. And volunteer organizations need to understand the processes CROs have and how to work within them.

Starting from the seemingly simple but often overlooked problem of geek-nongeek communication through requirements definition and formulation to usability and appropriateness, the marriage between software developers and aid/humanitarian/non-profit organizations is front-loaded with obstacles. However, in my opinion, this is no more or no less difficult than getting work done in an organization where teams with various competencies work on a mutual goal, such as a tech company with its developers, designers, marketing, sales, business development, customer support, etc. I may be biased by my professional background, but I think product/project management can be part of the solution to inter-field problems like this. It seems that Ethan has a simmilar (and more thought-out idea):

I ended up suggesting that Crisis Commons act as:

– a consultant to relief organizations, helping them define their technical needs, understand what was already available commercially and non-commercially and to frame needs to volunteer communities who could assist them
– a matchmaking service that connected volunteer orgs to short term and long term tech needs, preferably ones that had been clearly defined through a collaborative process
– a repository for best practices, collective knowledge about what works in this collaboration.

It would be exciting to see this kind of leadership emerge out of CrisisCommons. I also wonder what other organizations provide this kind of a bridge between the tech and non-profit worlds (I suspect a post on that coming soon).

The Listening Project

27 Sep

“The Listening Project” by CDA Collaborative Learning Projects shouldn’t feel novel, revolutionary and genius. This should be common practice! Or, until then, required reading.

Here’s more.

B*tches ain’t sh*t?

21 Sep

There is so much contradictory gender, race, and class stuff going on here that I don’t quite have a coherent comment on this video other than there’s both something interesting as well as frightening and wrong going on here. My main concern is the assumption and claim that they “force us to see the song in a different way”. Why is that true? “Bitches ain’t shit” is pretty unambiguous to me. The discussion around it is worth a read.

african-looking supermodels = environmentally friendly?

20 Sep

This DHL ad is strange enough in terms of its message, below:

Vivienne has a finger on the pulse and an eye on the planet. Just like us. Being on the cutting edge of fashion, Vivienne Westwood demands excellence, but not at a cost to the environment. That’s where DHL comes in.

But the choice of the photograph is what really startled me. Sure, coincidences happen, but ad collateral is chosen with considerable thought and I can’t help but suspect that the choice of an image with two black models behind Vivienne is somehow supposed to emphasize her environmentalist credentials. Something along the lines of African people = natural, pristine, romantic earth people. There’s a paper for a media studies undergrad somewhere in here.

Suggested reading: Edward Said, Antonia Gramsci, Stewart Hall