Arguing against big data a convenient way to argue for an increased bottom line?

It seems to be Apple and Microsoft against Google. The “concern” expressed by the unlikely pairing of Apple and Microsoft is that Google collects, and as I understand all of the concerns, shares personal data for pay. Google, in response, argues they use the information collected as a way to improve the search experience.

While this sounds like an disagreement over a principle, the positions taken align with business interests. Google makes money from advertising. Apple makes money from hardware. Microsoft makes money from software. The income foci of these companies has evolved and this may have something to do with the positions now taken on privacy. Google offers software and services for free partly to increase use of the web and as a way to offer more ads and collect more data. Google also offers services that decrease the importance of hardware. Chrome hurts the hardware sales of Apple.

What I think is important under these circumstances is clear public understanding of what data are being collected, how it is being used, and what are the motives of the players involved. It turns out we all are also players because blocking ads while still accepting services (the consequences of modifications of browsers) involves personal decisions for what constitutes ethical behavior.

Into this business struggle and how it has been spun appears a recent “study”  from Tim Wu and colleagues. Evaluation of the study is complicated by the funding source – Yelp. Yelp has long argued their results should appear higher in Google searches and suggests Google elevates the results of Google services instead. Clearly, you or I could go directly to Yelp when searching for local information completely ignoring Google (this is what I do when searching for restaurants), but Yelp wants more.

I have a very small stake in Google ads (making probably $3-4 a year), but I am more interested in the research methodology employed in this case. My own background as an educational researcher involved the reading and evaluation of many research studies. Experience as an educational researcher is relevant here because many educational studies are conducted in the field rather than the laboratory and this work does not allow the tight controls required for simple interpretation. We are used to evaluating “methods” and the capacity of methods to rule out alternative explanations. Sometimes, multiple interpretations are possible and it is important to recognize these cases.

Take a look at the “methods” section from the study linked above. It is a little difficult to follow, but it seems the study contrasts two sets of search results.

The Method and the data:
The method involved a comparison of “search results” consisting of a) Google organic search results or b) Google organiic search results and Google local “OneBox” links (7 links for local services with additional information provided by Google). The “concern” here is that condition “b” contains results that benefit Google.

The results found that condition B generate fewer clicks.

Here is a local search showing both the OneBox results (red box) and organic results from a Minneapolis search I conducted for pizza. What you see is what I could see on my Air. Additional content could be scrolled up.


The conclusion:

The results demonstrate that consumers vastly prefer the second version of universal search. Stated differently, consumers prefer, in effective, competitive results, as scored by Google’s own search engine, than results chosen by Google. This leads to the conclusion that Google is degrading its own search results by excluding its competitors at the expense of its users. The fact that Google’s own algorithm would provide better results suggests that Google is making a strategic choice to display their own content, rather than choosing results that consumers would prefer.

Issues I see:

The limited range of searches in the study. While relevant to the Yelp question which has a business model focused on local services, do the findings generalize to other types of search?

What does the difference in click frequency mean? Does the difference indicate as the conclusion claims that the search results provide an inferior experience for the user? Are there other interpretations. For example, the Google “get lucky” and the general logic of Google search is that many clicks indicate an inferior algorithm. Is it possible the position of the OneBox rather than the information returned that is the issue? This might be a bias, but the quality of the organic search would not be the issue.

How would this method feed into resolution of the larger question (is the collection of personal information to be avoided)? This connection to me is unclear. Google could base search on data points that are not personal (page rank). A comparison of search results based on page rank vs. page rank and personal search history would be more useful, but that is not what we have here.

How would you conduct a study to evaluate the “quality” concern?


Search Engine Land



Maker Options

Reviewing content posted from ISTE 2015 got me thinking about maker options (again). So much of the focus seems to be on robots, 3-D printers, coding, and DIY computers. Are these the opportunities I would promote?

Without disputing the opportunities associated with the maker categories I have mentioned, I think there are a couple of areas that are typically overlooked by those associated with the maker movement. I think these opportunities are similar or better as authentic opportunities and fit very well with multiple aspects of the curriculum. While I coded as part of my own career, I think a broader perspective is needed.

My two recommended project areas would be a) gardening and b) solar energy. I would argue each tie in with priority, real world needs (energy, global warming, nutrition, health) and both offer diverse opportunities for curriculum integration (measurement, data collection and analysis, writing, online research, advocacy, science, politics, economics, social issues).

I try to explore personally in areas I recommend for educational application and I have tried to focus on new personal experiences that would be novel for many learners. Brief descriptions of my present projects follow.

Straw Bale Gardening

This is something we encountered a year or so ago and now I am giving it a try myself (with mixed results ). Straw bale gardening seems suited to small spaces (some place the bales on a deck or patio) and it would seem feasible to find space within a school yard. Smaller size can also be a way to keep the commitment to the project from getting out of hand. Straw bale gardening involves elements of hydroponics and composting which add unique elements even those students with home gardens probably have not experienced.


Solar Energy

I used to think all colleges and universities should have their own wind turbines both as a learning lab and a sign of commitment to energy issues. My more recent solar energy interest is much more practical. I realize there are small kits allowing experimentation with solar energy – light a light bulb with a small energy cell. I would propose something on a little larger scale. For $200-300 you can get everything you need to power devices you actually use. I operate the lights in my office (at the lake). I could easily charge my mobile devices (note it seems you want to do this through a battery rather than directly). I think teachers could identify classroom energy needs a solar panel could satisfy. I think global warming, the reliance on fossil fuels, growing energy needs are such important issues to address.




Write About

I am a fan of the general educational benefits of writing with a personal interest in writing or authoring to learn. I see authoring as a “go to” technique that can be helpful to learners with any content area and at any age. In addition, authoring offers the opportunity to write for others increasing the authentic feel of the experience and often incorporating the cognitive benefits involved in “teaching to learn”.

These interests result in a constant search for tools and environments that facilitate authentic authoring. I end up writing about my finds (writing and writing must be some kind of meta thing).

Write About is an online service implementing many of the ideas I value. Their mission statement (what I would call it) goes like this – “A community where students engage in high-interest writing for an authentic audience and teachers help students grow through the entire writing process”.

Write About offers a flexible environment offering support and guidance or the opportunity to be entirely self-directed. Among the features are the following:

  • Proposed topics within genres to serve as prompts
  • Commenting and feedback tools. For students, these include suggestions for what to avoid to comment or offer feedback effectively and comment and feedback stems.
  • Multiple methods for sharing products
  • Recognition of security and privacy concerns with control over multiple levels of sharing. Teacher and author sign off is required for truly public sharing. Participation of learners under the age of 13 is assumed to involve parental permission.

How would a service like this be different than say Google Docs within the Google Apps for Education environment? I would suggest that you could likely accomplish most of the same things, but the Write About environment is designed to be a teaching/learning environment (with prompts, feedback stems, built-in sharing opportunities). Google docs would have superior multimedia capabilities.

What about cost? Writing About offers multiple plans with features and the amount of use varying by plan. I would suggest that the free plan is mostly useful for experimentation and it is probably more practical to purchase by the month or year for serious application.


Evidently, a good idea is not good enough

I am a news junkie and I have been using a product called Circa when I read on my phone. I opened Circa this evening and the lead was that Circa is going on hiatus (shutting down).

I became interested in Circa when reading the Jeff Jarvis book “Geeks bearing gifts”. Jarvis writes about innovation in the news industry and used Circa as an example. Circa proposed that no one wants to read extended articles on a mobile device and came up with a way of “atomizing” content. The idea is to break a story down into the main idea and supporting pieces and allow readers to take in as much as they want. Circa also attempted to follow stories over time so if you wanted to follow a given story you would receive additional updates. I offer an extended description and thoughts on the potential of this approach as a general model for content presentation in a previous post.

I am not certain where Circa thought it was going with its cool idea. It did not contain ads and access is free. This has worked for other companies (e.g., Twitter), but sooner or later investors evidently want to see the money flow.

This analysis from The Verge describes various difficulties.

  • News is a difficult content area
  • There was no monetization plan
  • The atomized approach does not share easily.

One of the reasons given bothered me. The author suggested people no longer want information that is cold and rational, they want entertainment and emotion. The author described the summarization methods employed as “flavorless bullet points” (if I remember correctly). Yes, ed tech types, this does sound like death by PowerPoint.

I see this assumption that we need to entertain everywhere. Whatever happened to just learning because learning itself is interesting.

The spin applied by tech companies

What are you willing to share to get something in return? The answer to this question may be very relevant to the future of several companies – Google, Apple, and Microsoft.

Are you willing to share data derived from your online behavior? This seems to be shaping up as a dividing line newly promoted by these companies to differentiate themselves and attract users and their money. (The New Yorker offers their analysis).

Here is how the companies spin their positions. Google wants you to believe that it collects information about you to provide you better online experiences. The more Google knows, the more helpful it can be. Do you want random ads or do you want ads that address personal interests? (No open consideration of whether you want ads at all). Apple and Microsoft, in contrast, vow to protect your privacy. The use of data derived from your online behavior is described as a privacy issue.

I’m speaking to you from Silicon Valley, where some of the most prominent and successful companies have built their businesses by lulling their customers into complacency about their personal information.

Guess who – Tim Cook

When I attempt to understand the decisions of technology companies, I ask myself “What are the business model?” We know what these companies offer. Microsoft sells software and some might argue services. Apple sells you hardware, some software, and access to content and services developed by other companies. Google sells a few services and access to other companies content and software, but mostly it sells ad impressions.

These companies do offer users some “no cost” incentives. Microsoft gives away some cross-platform services (One Note, Bing search). Apple gives away some software to Apple users (the OS and productivity apps), but is very limited in cross-platform opportunities. Google gives away many cross-platform services.

You are a user? What do you want? Do remember the Stones’ song – You can’t always get what you want (but if you try some time, you can get what you need)? This actually good advice and should be heeded in this situation. An acceptable answer to the question of what do you want should not be – I want stuff for free. A better answer might be – I want reasonably priced goods and services and not to be taken advantage of in order to obtain what I need.

Apple’s present gamble is that it can do locally on a device what Google does with machine learning and the Google cloud. Apple understands the importance of personalization, but intends to develop a different approach. Rather than collect information based on your behavior, store these data in the cloud and then personalize services based on what appear to be your priorities, Apple intends to keep your data on your device to convince you that your data are not being shared or used for other evil purposes. If developed by Apple using this approach, a service comparable to Google Now could offer useful information related to personal needs without sharing the personal priorities the system determined with Apple. I suppose Apple assumes you view ads as a nuisance you could do without and can search when you want information about a product or service. Apple also assumes you can do without free Google services and will find other services as a substitute. I also suppose it is possible Apple may believe it can offer similar free services if providing such services further reduced interest in what Google offers. This last possibility has yet to materialize as Apple has not been able to develop credible cloud services to this point.

What about Microsoft? A similar logic might apply. Microsoft now promotes its combination of free and paid services (and software) by assuming you are willing to pay for some things in compensation for not having to share personal information.

If you are willing to give up your Google services what is it you assume? I suggest you assume Apple will be able to actually create the device based “personal priority and needs” approach it claims to be developing and that Apple will get far better at cloud services.

The “nuclear option” for anti-Google companies is to build in default mechanisms for blocking ads. At present, if Google can show no ads it would not have enough alternative revenue streams to stay afloat. Customers taking advantage of this “privacy” opportunity and not understanding what they get in the trade for their information could possibly ruin Google. Of course, it is more complicated than just Google vs. Apple and Microsoft. Removing ads, also removes an incentive for many who offer content for free. Those offering content would need other incentives for doing so and the consequences of these other incentives are unclear.

Why do I care? While I understand the general motive of companies to acquire as much of the pie as possible, I do not see a system with few players as great for consumers. I think greater awareness of how companies make money is important. How you or I interpret these finance models is important? It is possible to spin whichever approach you choose to attack? Apple’s model involves overpricing locking users into software and services that may not be the best available. Apple supports blocking ads that were intended to appear by the authors of content. Google uses data about user behavior.

Google Photos

Google just announced a new photo service – now independent of Google+. The service is called Google Photos (confusing since Apple also calls their service Photos).

The service might be understood as consisting of three elements:

  • software (iOS, android and desktop) to upload photos
  • cloud image processing that attempts to identify what is in a photo
  • storage capacity – unlimited as long as the images and video are converted to Photo’s constraints (16 megapixel and 1080p)

The clincher for many users will be that the service costs you nothing.

Google does not require that you do all of the work in categorizing your photos and it is the machine learning capabilities of Google that generates some of the most intriguing results. The system will attempt to determine who is in a photo, where the photo was taken, when it was taken, and the category to which a photo should be assigned (video, panorama, etc.). The system is not perfect but good enough to amaze.

Some examples:

1) Photos attempts to identify the individuals in photos. One capability I found amazing was the ability to track individuals as they age.

add1 add2

2) Google creates interesting photo stories from your images. This capability is not dependent on tags or annotations you have added.

story1 story2

3) One categorization method is based on location. Images do not have to be geotagged to be located (note most camera phones do not include GPS data in the exif).


4) Photos makes it easy to share groupings of photos as a URL – example.

It is worth exploring Google Photos from your desktop and your mobile device. The perspective is not exactly the same. For example, the zoom in and out methods of exploring your collection are not available on the desktop.

I was originally interested in Google Photos as a way to duplicate my Flickr account. When I have some time I may attempt to compare the features of these two services. I do see some differences but with Google Photos available at no cost, I see nothing wrong with using Photos as a backup. I see Apple as the loser in this situation.


One of the characteristics on authoring tools we look to recommend is simplicity. The idea is that learners should be able to focus most of their time and attention on the message/content and learn the means to convey their content quickly. TACKK is an online tool that is a good example of such a tool. The tool relies on templates and multimedia objects allowing users to easily generate a variety of attractive “page” types. The tool seems a great way to create what we have described as online embellished documents.

TACKK offers special provisions for educational classroom applications.

A simple tackk is embedded below (full-size version is available):