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Cool Data Visualization Projects

This is a great blog post linking to some interesting data visualization projects. I particularly like the first example, Wordle, which I found myself spending quite a bit of time playing around with. The BBC videos are awesome too.


Trend Blend Map 2009

trend_blend_2009_map_300px.jpgThis is very cool and perhaps even a little frightening - a visual cacophony of trends and pitfalls for the year 2009 from a consulting firm called Future Exploration Network.

The sheer volume of trends and issues detailed is a masterclass in research. I don't agree with all the ordering but as the authors note, it's an educated guess (albeit clearly heavily debated and researched).

PDF download is here, and here's the blog post where I found it and made a suggestion...

The Great Fish Slapping Caper

This is the video of a publicity stunt that our friend Jay Nguyen CEO of Sweemo.com did on Wednesday, Jay was looking for a way to promote the launch of his new 'sweet moments' site, a cool ebay-like site for bidding on interesting adventures and outings.

Jay offered an auction for the opportunity to 'slap the CEO in the face with a fish', and fly whomever won from anywhere in the world to do so in Trafalgar Square. In the end a rather large guy from Texas won, and he would appear to have got his moneys worth...


The 6 Hour Embargo

Michael Arrington of Techcrunch has fuelled controversy in typically abrasive fashion with his recent post on press release embargos. He has declared war on PR firms and said his site will flagrantly disobey their embargo requests from now on.

Here's my take as a startup founder doing his own PR and as a former Journalist.

Embargos are of benefit only to journalists. Frankly they are a pain in the behind for startup founders. I actually don't mind sending out press releases under embargo as I realize they help journalists prepare and write a story and manage their workday. Without them a journalist's life would be even more stressful and harried than it already is. They ask me to do it and generally better stories result. But given the choice I far would far rather not give out embargoes under the current model.

Here's my diary of a recent (and typical) news announcement...

  • Decide on a date when we'll be ready to release our big new feature
  • Try to predict and basically hope it will be a slow news day and that Google, Yahoo or Facebook don't release anything major
  • Check with developers two days beforehand that things are still on track for an on-time release
  • Have to make tricky decision that same day to release in 48 hours (will it be ready?) and contact journalists to give them a 2 day 'heads up' that news is coming.
  • Several journalists respond by e-mail thanking me for the headsup and showing real interest in the story. They ask for the embargoed release at all different times - the evening before release, the morning of, etc
  • Have to work out whose turn it is among the inside journalists as to which one will get the preferential treatment. Someone has to get it. Journalism politics are a real headache and you try to remain equitable.
  • You offer the inside scoop to a particular journalist, perhaps because last time they got pipped to the post, or its a better story for them or its because they've shown special interest
  • You remember to send the release under embargo to journalists at all the different times they've requested
  • The big day comes and you send the release out with an embargo for Noon
  • You find out that one of the journalists already printed the story last night
  • Your preferred journalist is now pissed off and doesn't write about it
  • All the other journalists are pissed off too and don't write about it either
  • You don't know any of this for sure but nobody is covering the story. Do you contact the other journalists to enquire, do you contact them to apologize? You end up apologizing to the journalists and offering them something for 'a future time' or 'the next time'.
  • You have to remember what you've offered, for the next time and hope it doesn't all screw up again
  • After all this you get to release the two most important things of all - the blog post with the details for your users to learn about the new feature, and the e-mail that announces the blog post to your users.
  • All that effort with embargoes, and one publication has covered the story.

So with this recent true story in mind, you would be forgiven for thinking I would be completely against embargoes. It would be far simpler for me and infinitely less stressful to organize a single co-ordinated release of information. The simultaneous actions for my imaginary release would be...

  • Blog Post on our web site is made public
  • E-mails sent to journalists
  • Emails sent to all registered users
  • Timed release of Press release on Internet wire services
  • Uploading of the Press Release onto our own site's Press page

As a startup founder this would be by far the easiest approach to manage.

What worries me about this is approach is the effect it would have on the quality of journalism. If all journalists get the same release at the same time, and know that the rest of the free world already knows about it too, there is much less chance they will take the time to understand the news, play around with the new feature, and write something considered and informed. It will simply be 'rush to publish' with all the associated errors and inaccuracies.

Personally I don't want that from journalism and I think it serves people far better that writers actually have time to learn about the news before they write about the news.

So the new formula I am working on is called the 6 Hour Embargo...

  • Aim for a date, but be flexible
  • Inform friendly journalists to expect something "that week". Indicate a possible day
  • On the morning of the release, send a 6 hour embargoed release to all journalists at the same time
  • Be available to speak anytime within those 6 hours to answer questions and provide a personalized demo
  • Announce the release widely through all channels 6 hours later

Doing things this way would allow the journalists time to write their articles without stress, gives me the flexibility to change the day if I need to (busy news day?), minimizes the damage if someone goes out earlier with the news.

Its going to be interesting to see how this whole controversy Michael Arrington has stirred up pans out.


The Big 3 Automakers and Flying Cars

moller.jpgAll the current problems with the Big 3 US automakers and the debate over their short term future has left me wondering about the long term.

For many years as I've watched the developments over at Moller industries I've often that thought that when we do start to have personal flying vehicles, as is completely inevitable, it will be the major car manufacturers of today that are the flying vehicle manufacturers of tomorrow. It's not hard to imagine climbing into a space age looking flying car like that above, with the Ford logo embossed on the front.

I wonder if future plans for flying cars will find their way into the car companies' submissions to the government. Somehow I doubt it.


A long overdue upgrade to e-mail?

You can add a profile picture or avatar to just about any form of social interaction online - it can be discussion forums, Twitter, Social networking sites or Skype. In all cases you can set a picture or design to represent yourself, to the people you're communicating with.

It occurred to me tonight... why can't you do the same with e-mail?

It would be cool to see a picture of the person who's emailing me, even if it's someone I've never heard from before. It would be cool to choose a picture or design for myself, to send along with my outgoing e-mails.

I gave it some thought and figured out a possible way this could be implemented very easily. Decide on a standard where a profile picture is sent as a regular e-mail attachment, only with a standardized file name - say propic.jpg.

E-mail client programs like Outlook and webmail services like Gmail or Hotmail could add support for this feature in a future (and very trivial) update. They could display a person's profile picture wherever or however they like, alongside the e-mail.

The whole thing is not disimilar to how a standardized favicon file is used to represent the tiny logos next to web addresses in your browser.

I've not checked to see if anything like this has been proposed before but it seems like a simple idea to me!


How to import email addresses from a text file into Twitter

Twitter is great for keeping friends and family updated with what you're doing, but it can also be a good business tool too - you can keep customers updated with news, blog posts, feature releases etc.

On WorldTV for example we built an 'in-application alerts box' that disseminates news right within our Flash based Editor, and is powered by Twitter. Effectively we are using Twitter as a simple CMS. Whenever we want to add a new message to our alerts box, we just log into our Twitter account and write something. Since our blog is connected to Twitter those updates get posted automatically to the alerts box too.

Periodically we want to be able to go through our list of registered users' email addresses and add any new ones to our Twitter account as people we 'follow', if for no other reason than it's a good way to let those people know we're on Twitter and they can follow us if they choose.

Twitter has an e-mail address import feature but it only supports specific web based e-mail services like Gmail, Yahoo, AOL etc. There is no option to upload a text or Excel file.

The workaround is to make use of one of the aforementioned services to do the import for you and then pull that in to Twitter. There's a couple of gotcha's along the way so I'll take you through the process with Gmail.

(I chose Gmail for the task but the same idea could work with Hotmail, Yahoo, AOL etc too. I've just not tried it.)

Sticking with Gmail I suggest you create a new Gmail account for bringing in your e-mail addresses. You could use your existing Gmail account but depending on how many addresses you are bringing in and the circumstances, you might not want to mix the two sets of contacts. For example, Gmail only lets you delete 500 contacts at a time (not very useful if you are importing thousands) and Twitter can't distinguish between your Gmail contacts in any way - it will import them all.

Depending on the number of contacts you are trying to add, I would suggest splitting them into chunks of no more than 15,000 at a time. I don't know what the limit is with Google or with Twitter but this seems to be a workable number. Depending on your audience, those 15,000 e-mails could yield 200-750 Twitter contacts.

To upload / import your contacts into Google you will need a CSV file such as those created by Excel. Google has instructions on this but basically a two column spreadsheet with all your e-mail addresses in the first column and the name of the person in the second will suffice. Make sure the columns have the descriptions 'Email Address' and 'Name' in the first row above each column so Google can figure out which is which. You do need a name column (even though Twitter will ignore this), or else Google won't import it.

Once imported into Gmail, you can then go to the 'Find People' section of Twitter and give Twitter your Gmail account details. It's at this stage you find out how many of the e-mail addresses you had are actually Twitter users. In my experience Twitter frequently gives error messages during the adding contacts process but they still seem to get added anyway.

Once you are all done, I suggest deleting the Gmail account you created if only to play nice and free up the space for others. Enjoy!

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