The Politics of Maps

One of the pieces of technology I most love showing to other educators is the ever growing collection of Google’s “mapping”1 resources. Not only do they often come with layers of great information, Google also provides excellent tools for anyone to do it themselves. Take a look around the other side of this site for other posts on how to use them.

But one aspect we rarely address, or even consider, is that not everyone in the world views those maps in the same way. A very current example is the fact that Google says Crimea is still part of the Ukraine, something certainly disputed by Russia.

The geopolitical aspect of map making throughout history, and Google’s place in the center of this latest example, were the subject of two segments on the most recent edition of the public radio program and podcast On the Media.

If your students are studying geography, current events, world history, or anything to do with the nature of information, the program would be a good starter for discussion and analysis.

Also from the world of Google’s maps, they continue to their Street View cameras into places that really don’t have streets. The latest example allows visitors to wander through the ruins at Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

And finally, one question that comes up regularly in my sessions, is where does Google get its maps?2 This post from the Google Earth blog is a good overview of the process.


Cross posted from the other side of this site on which you’ll find my training resources and other good stuff.


  1. We need a better term than “map”, which has very static connotations these days.

  2. That one often comes before or after someone asks “Where can I see the live feed?”, which, of course, only exists in spy films.

Buyer Beware

As I’ve mentioned in other rants, I speak to many groups on the topic of managing information while on the go and using multiple devices to do it. While each person needs to figure out the process that works best for them, almost everyone now depends on interconnected services and applications that can sync to some kind of storage in the now-legendary cloud.

It turns out those web-based services are not yet to the point of being completely dependable. Case in point, back in March Google pretty much lopped off one of the cornerstones of the information management process I use and advocate when they announced the shutting down of Reader, their service that is the "cloud" behind (above?) many, if not most, RSS aggregator applications. Which means that millions of us who depended on Reader (plus more than a few software publishers) are looking for alternatives before July 1.

Last week my process potentially took another hit when the developer of Instapaper, another application I depend on every day, posted that he was selling the popular read-later service. Considering how many small web/app companies have disappeared lately because their new owners wanted the people and technologies* but not the product, I had reason to be concerned.

However, there’s a big difference between this announcement and Google’s. Instapaper’s owner was very up front and transparent about the sale. Between posts to his blog and discussions on several podcasts, he made it clear that his first concern was for the users of the service. A core part of the deal was that the development of Instapaper continue.

It remains to be seen if everyone involved follows through on this plan, but this situation illustrates the big difference between Google and this individual developer (other than one is an 800 pound gorilla).

Google’s business is selling advertising and it’s users (and the data they generate) are the product being sold. The shutdown of Reader is one more sign that leaders of the company have decided anything not generating revenue must be changed or deleted.

Maybe not something to worry about but certainly something to consider before you begin to rely on a product, service, or app (from Google or any other company) that may disappear on short notice.


*One of the latest examples is Posterous, a simple blogging site that was bought by Twitter in 2012 and shut down a few days ago.

Why I Don’t Like Free

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not all that different from most others when it comes to someone buying me lunch. And I’ve certainly collected my share of conference tchotchkes over the years.

But I’ve also been around long enough to have learned that free seldom comes without a price, especially in this digital life. That point was driven home this week when Google announced the death of Reader, their RSS aggregator and a service I have relied on every day for many years.

When it comes to free, whether it’s hardware, software, or services, there are basically three ways you wind up paying.

One is through advertising, which is what you get with “free” search, “free” social networking sites, apps, video, and more. The payment comes in the form of clutter, distraction, and that nagging suspicion that you’re being tracked (likely you are). Or they directly connect your content to the advertising. (Ask the users of Instagram how that feels.) The saying goes that if you’re not paying for it, you’re the product, not the customer.

Another way free can cost you comes in the form of underpowered software and services. The description looks like what you need but you eventually discover that the no-cost version doesn’t do what you need it to do and to get the functionality you were promised, there’s either a paid version or the newly fashionable “in-app purchases” to bring it up to speed.

Finally, we have the cost that Google is now extracting from many of us: the product or service disappears. If the developer isn’t making money from either you or advertisers, they don’t have a lot of incentive to continue developing and improving their creation. Or continuing to make it available at all.

So now I will be paying for the years of free functionality provided by Google Reader in the form of spending my time looking for good alternatives. (So much for don’t be evil.)

And worrying about the possible fate of Delicious, another service with no apparent business plan that has also become a cornerstone of my information life. Maybe I’ll be proactive and take another look at Pinboard.

 

Beware of the Clouds

This week Google opened it’s new, highly anticipated cloud storage service called Drive, a direct competitor with Dropbox, Microsoft’s SkyDrive and others.

With all recent the stories about Google’s privacy policies (or their lack privacy concerns?), more than a few observers have pointed out this little piece of their newly unified terms of service agreement that seems to apply to material you store in their cloud.

Screen Shot 2012 04 26 at 12 58 10 PM

I’m not sure I want to give Google the rights to “create derivative works” or “publicly perform” my stuff, even if I cancel my account. Do you?

I imagine the Google lawyers are mulling over all the criticisms and will probably make some changes to the TOS for Drive. In the meantime, I’ll stay with Dropbox which seems to have a better grasp of this whole private storage concept.

By using our Services you provide us with information, files, and folders that you submit to Dropbox (together, “your stuff”). You retain full ownership to your stuff. We don’t claim any ownership to any of it. These Terms do not grant us any rights to your stuff or intellectual property except for the limited rights that are needed to run the Services, as explained below.*

Of course, all of this is null and void if the feds come knocking on their door demanding to peek in my little corner of the cloud.

As they could, without a warrant or my knowledge, under the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act of 2011 (CISPA) now being considered in the US House. Go visit the Electronic Frontier Foundation to see why and how to voice your opposition to this latest attempt to violate your privacy in the name of “security” (to keep you Cyber-Snuggly).

And, as always, understand the terms of service before relying on any web service.

Let’s be careful out there.


*And the fact that they also call my intellectual property “stuff” is attractive. :-)

Who Owns Your Digital Identity?

In a recent article for the Guardian (mercifully one British newspaper not owned by Rupert Murdock), Dan Gilmore makes some interesting points about who controls the information you post using social networking tools like Twitter, Facebook, and the current buzz champ of the digerati, Google+.

He says we need to consider not only what we get from these free services but also what we’re giving away in the bargain.

Control, ownership and value are inextricably linked, but having one does not necessarily boost another. Exposure on a site you don’t control may be worth more to you than lack of attention on a site you do. And you may find the social and professional connections you make and enjoy on third-party sites so useful that they’re worth what you are giving up. But it’s worth weighing the tradeoffs.

If you make G+ (or Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn or Tumblr any other service that hosts your conversations and other “content”) your primary online presence, you are in effect giving away something enormously valuable. You are giving your contributions to the emergent global conversation to a company that values you largely as a contributor of data it can then turn into money.

I’ve never been under the illusion that the content on this site has large amounts of value to anyone but me (certainly not in monetary terms), but since I started doing this many years back, I’ve had the feeling that I would be better off in the long run if my primary online presence was on a site that I owned and was under my control (or as much ownership and control as the public web allows).

It’s not that I fear what Google or Twitter or Tumblr might decide to do with what I post (Facebook can be a little creepy in their decisions around privacy but still not something to fear), I just like to make my own decisions about those little bits of information.

On a related branch of this discussion, we also need to incorporate some of the ideas about which Gilmore is writing* into what we teach kids, and adults for that matter, about creating and maintaining their online image.

Helping them avoid giving away control of their thoughts and ideas to someone else.


*And no, I didn’t miss the irony related to Gilmore posting his ideas on the topic of control to the online edition of a newspaper, although I assumed he was paid for the work.

ISTE Quick Thoughts: While We Were Busy

The game just changed.

At least according to headline on the full-page Microsoft ad in the USA Today that was left at my hotel room door this morning. The company was announcing the release of Office 365, the cloud-based version of their classic suite of productivity tools.

I wonder if this move to the cloud by the dominant company in business computing will have much impact on the schools and colleges represented here at ISTE. In many if not most sessions, presenters were showing how they are already using web applications with their students to do the same kinds of things they might have used Office (or something similar) for five, eight, ten years ago.

Certainly there’s Google Docs but also a large and growing number of other sites that make it easy to collect, manage, share, and present information. Most are free, or cost far less than the $6 – 27 a month per user Microsoft wants, depending on how many pieces of Office 365 you rent.

So, will there be a big demand in schools for a cloud-based version of Word and PowerPoint? Is this something businesses will pay for?

21st Century Dumb Terminal

This week the latest edition of “Technology to Save Education” will arrive!

Maybe.

On Wednesday, Google plans to release something called the Chromebook and a program called Chromebook for Education (actually it’s lumped under business/education, since, as we all know, education is just another business).

As I read Google’s announcement and scanned various reactions to the Chromebook, my first impression is that this new device is not so much the next step in connected computing as it is a 70’s flashback to the time of computing through a dumb terminal.

Lear-Siegler ADM5 video display terminal

For those who were lucky enough to have been born into their computing life during the age of relatively inexpensive personal computers (my first was an Apple IIe) and missed the experience, a dumb terminal was a screen-with-keyboard unit connected to an mainframe computer in another room or another state.  All of the digital work was done by that unseen machine with the results displayed on your screen.

That’s basically how the Chromebook works. When you turn it on (very fast start up was one of the features Google is pushing hard), all you see is the browser, in which all applications are run (Google Docs word processing, for example.) All documents and information you need are also stored in the “cloud”.

For schools, another big selling point was that they wouldn’t own a Chromebook as much as subscribe to it – $20 a month for each unit on a three year contract.  No IT department needed, although, as near as I can tell, that price doesn’t include the absolutely essential connectivity, so either you either provide the wifi connections, or pay extra for a 3G contract.

So, is this the next big thing in ed tech? Can we forget netbooks, tablets, and computers running that antiquated software called an “operating system”?

Probably not.

Google says in their announcement that “With HTML5 and other open standards, web applications will soon be able to do anything traditional applications can do, and more.” but anyone who has used Google Docs and the equivalent programs on even a tablet knows that “soon” is not now.

And the final specifications for HTML5 are not even supposed to be released until 2022, so banking on that technology to replace independently configured devices and native applications is probably not a near-term solution to whatever problems Google thinks we currently have in instructional computing.

From the school’s side of things, certainly the face-value costs of using Chromebooks would be lower since the $720 price tag ($20 a month over three years) is about half what our overly-large school district pays for a standard laptop (although more than our standard netbook), and three years is the realistic life span of one in the hands of kids or teachers.  Plus Google says the fee includes all maintenance and upgrades.

And since, theoretically, everyone will be using Google Apps for their work, the experience is now standardized.  Every student would have a device that looks and acts like all the other devices in the system and there would be no concerns about lost work due to hard drive crashes or virus infestations.  Our IT department and most teachers seem to love standardization, at least when it comes to tech for student use.

Of course, at this point all I know about a Chromebook is what I’ve read on Google’s site, the reactions of others who were actually at the conference, and lots of speculation. I’m hoping to get some hands-on time with it at Google’s ISTE booth in two weeks.

However, at this point I’m wondering: is the ideal personal computer for instruction a device that is, in effect, a dumb terminal straight out of the 70’s?


Image: Lear-Sieglar ADM5 video display terminal by LevitateMe on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.

A Motivating Talk

Love TED Talks! This new one from TED Global in England last month features Daniel Pink discussing the science of motivation.

Pink is addressing the business world in his presentation but I think parts of what he has to say could apply to those of us in the non-business world as well.*

Especially when he notes that “too many organizations are making their decisions based, their policies about talent and people, based on assumptions that are outdated, unexamined, and rooted more in folklore than in science.”

Pink suggests that businesses and organizations need a whole new approach, one “built much more around intrinsic motivation, around the desire to do things because they matter, because we like it, because they’re interesting, because they’re part of something important”.

Towards the end he discusses one motivator being used by a few companies, a variation on Google’s policy allowing employees to spend 20% of their time working on personal projects.

How cool would it be if we could incorporate the Google 20% policy into schools? Not just for teachers, but for students as well.

Anyway, as with many TED talks, this less than 20 minute presentation (it’s pretty clear when Pink gets the two minute light :-) is worth your time.


* I know there are some educators who can’t stand Pink’s ideas (not me for the most part) as well as the attempt to apply business practices to education (me most of the time).

Email is not Necessarily Communication

The tech news from the past couple of weeks has been rather interesting over with two giant tech companies making big announcements about very different products.

For one Microsoft rolled out their third major attempt to take some of the internet search business (and the ad revenue that goes with it) from Google, named Bing (“the first ever decision engine”?)

Google, on the other hand, demonstrated once again that they are looking at a much bigger picture, beyond simply providing tools for finding web pages.

At their annual developers conference, the company showed off Wave, browser-based software that is probably best described as a communications platform.

Watching the video (and you really should to better understand what they’re attempting to do) left me with a couple of big impressions.

First, the software itself may not be the most unique thing about Wave.

The most interesting part is that this major new product was being shown to the world in a very beta condition (it crashed at least twice by my count) and the company was inviting anyone to tinker with the guts.

Wave will be open source with a large set of completely open APIs and Google is encouraging people to not only write applications for it but even build businesses on top of it.

Maybe our students should be given the option of learning Google development tools as an alternative to Microsoft certifications. The difference between gaining entrepreneurial skills and being locked into someone else’s concepts?

Anyway, the other thought running through my head was about the crappy the communications tools we are stuck with.

In our overly-large school district, we use Microsoft’s Outlook which is pretty mediocre for an email system.

It’s even worse when it comes to actual communication and collaboration, especially when trying to work outside the MS bubble on mobile devices and non-IE browsers.

Ok, I’m not ready to assign miracle properties to Wave based on one demonstration.

However, watching the Google development team explain their vision for this new platform offers a striking contrast between the traditional concept of email (to which we seem wedded) and open, flexible tools that actually foster connections between people.

I wonder if our administrators might be willing to spend a small fraction of the millions we pay to maintain the largest single MS Exchange installation (that’s NOT a good thing) to develop Wave applications for the educational community.

Probably not.

The High Cost of Bells and Whistles

My alma mater, the University of Arizona, is strongly considering dumping their current email system and switching to Google Docs for Education.

In addition to mail, students and faculty will get the whole Docs package, collaborative office tools, calendars, a chat system, and personal web sites.

Casap [Google's rep] said that it does not make sense for universities to provide an e-mail service when something like Google Apps can provide it to universities for free. He also said that the Google supported e-mail could be branded to the university.

So let’s see: the U of A has more than four times the number of students and faculty than the number of staff in our overly-large school district (we don’t provide email for students).

But our administration sees a need to send the Big Monopoly of Redmond a large (LARGE!) annual check for Office and Outlook licenses, on top of the cost of paying for dozens of servers and people to keep the email flowing.

Ok, I know Google Docs doesn’t have all the bells and whistles, not to mention doodads, that are in the BM’s products.

However, the number of people in our system who actually use those very high priced extras could probably fit in a small high school auditorium.

Google Never Forgets

Seth Godin is regarded in the business world as an expert in marketing, and is also someone who writes a great blog on everything related to the topic.

His post today, Personal Branding in the Age of Google, is brief, to the point, and should be required reading for all our students (and probably more than a few educators).

Seth’s bottom line message: “Everything you do now ends up in your permanent record.”.

Sharing the Small Stuff

Although it seems like they’ve alway been around, Google is celebrating it’s 10th anniversary this month.

To celebrate, the people who write the Official Google Blog asked ten of the company’s top experts to speculate on the next ten years of the internet.

Specifically, “[h]ow will this phenomenal technology evolve, how will we adapt, and (more importantly) how will it adapt to us?”.

The first entry addresses how the web can bring people closer together.

The promise of the social web is about making it easy to share the small stuff — to make it effortless and rebuild that feeling of connectedness that comes from knowing the details. My wife recently sent out a public Picasa Web Album of baby photos to ten of her friends. Four of them wrote back saying “I didn’t know Joe got a new car?!” (her friends browsed through my other public photo albums). While she would never hesitate to share the big event (new baby), she never would have shared the small detail of me getting a new car. This kind of thing is repeated again and again. The small details are left out. A weekend with Grandma and Grandpa? Thinking about selling my house? Are these things all “worth” sharing? Maybe. Sometimes. For some people.

Fortunately, as the web becomes more social, I won’t have to spend as much energy thinking about what’s “interesting enough” to share with a certain group. The people who care about me and that I allow will increasingly be able to tune in to the parts of my life that interest them.

Of course all of this will require tools that are far more ubiquitous and easy to use. Or relatives and friends who are willing to become as connected as I am.

Running Schools Like a Business

Yesterday CBS’s Sunday Morning repeated their story (video) on how Google pampers it’s employees, focusing especially on the free gourmet meals in their cafeteria.

For most of it, the report implies that these perks are a key reason for the amazing success of the company.

However, it’s not until the end of the piece that the reporter finally arrives at the real reasons why so many smart people want to work at Google.

Google employees have goals that they are expected to reach, but they are given lots of freedom in getting there.

“Ironically, the hardest thing to copy at Google is not the free food or massages or parking, which anyone can do,” says Pfeffer. “The hardest thing to copy and for corporate leaders to get in their heads is that if you hire intelligent people you actually let them use their intelligence.”

“If you give them freedom, they will amaze you,” says Bock. “They’ll surprise you with what they come up with.”

It’s not just other companies; American education could learn a lot from Google.

That open, collaborative atmosphere at the core of Google’s corporate philosophy should be a fundamental part of teaching and learning in our schools.