These all came across the Twitter feed from the LAFD the past few days. As they happened. Not a news media site feed, but direct from the fire department in real time. Could this be the future of effective government interaction with the public?
I can still turn on the 10 o'clock news and get the fire beat, though let's be honest, I never do. It's just not news at that point. It's footage of a building burning and and on-site reporter wrapping up the aftermath. Entertaining, maybe in some odd way. But is that useful? Not really.
When I'm out driving to a meeting and I get a Twitter update (tweet) on my phone from the LAFD letting me know the 405 is a mess due to an overturned semi truck, that's useful information. Where it gets truly useful is in a city-wide disaster situation.
Atlanta's tornadoes back in March really brought Twitter out to dance. FlowerDust covered her first-hand Twitter tornado updates on her blog. Here in LA we had the massive wildfires from the Santa Ana winds back in October. The LAFD was already actively using Twitter and constantly updating its followers, many of them news organizations, of the fire situation. Talk about early adopters, this was October, and they already had 500 people following them on Twitter. (If you look at the growth of the Twitter-sphere, this was well before the latest user boom.) If and when the next big earthquake hits Southern California, we're really going to see the power of this approach. And it's a two-way street. Brian Humphrey, the LAFD's Public Information Officer and champion of this next-gen civic communication, calls the Twitter faithful, "our reporters in the field," acting as eyes and ears even before a fire truck has left the station. If the department needs to quickly spread word that the water supply has been contaminated - the "boil tap water" tweet can get beamed out instantly. So if you haven't already, and you live in the LA-area, make sure you are following LAFD. If you don't Twitter, you can also get alerts at http://lafd.org/alert.
Brian and his team at the LAFD totally get it. They understand how powerful the new web tools are and the role they need to play in today's civic government. Open government is a founding principle by and large pretty well adopted across government agencies. But interactive government is where we need to be heading.
I sent a tweet over to LAFD today asking why hasn't the other 4-letter LA-city department, LAPD, jumped on the bandwagon. Brian emailed me back right away and said as of yet, they just haven't gotten on board. "Despite active encouragement and repeated offers of help, the LAPD has
yet to express an interest in Twitter and similar technologies. If they
decide to get on the bandwagon, we will certainly be there to support
LAPD - get with it. If there's a shooting in my neighborhood that just went out over the police scanners, the local news all monitor so they can come point cameras at it 30 min later. But I would like to know the second it goes out. That's when it's useful information!
Ok, so I've been putting it off for a while. We all have. But it's about time to learn some conversational Mandarin. Now I could head to craigslist and search for LA-based Mandarin teachers or tear off one of the phone numbers on a flyer I saw at Whole Foods. But this is just too Web 1.0 to me. How am I supposed to know who's a good teacher or not? From their ad? No, I need that social networking component that I'm starting to take for granted in practically all the services I rely on - Yelp, YouTube, Facebook, Digg.
That's when I found eduFire, an online learning community that's right now focused on matching language tutors with people like me who want to learn or practice a language. A quick search found that as of today, there are 19 tutors who can teach me Mandarin, ranging in price from $10-45/hr. The tutors list themselves, their experience, their teacher rating from past students, and even a video clip of one of their lessons.
Founder Jon Bischke, who previously founded The 2000Tutor.com Network (sold to Penton Media), Zaadz (sold to Gaiam) and LearnOutLoud.com, has quite the track record in building successful teams. The Santa Monica-based company currently has a nimble 3-person team but is looking to grow as the site develops. Hmm, having an office one block from the beach should help with recruiting. They are looking to close a Series A round in the next few months, and currently have a $400k angel round to hold them over.
The site is very Web 2.0, built around a solid Rails-based social networking platform and uses Flash to deliver the video. They launched about a month ago and have already recruited a network of over 400 language tutors. Newly added is the Flashcards feature that allows you to work on language vocab between tutor sessions.
Tutors don't have to pay anything to list themselves on the site. eduFire takes a 15% commission from each tutor session, which is only paid once the session is complete. The model is similar to Grockit (disclosure: I'm investor in Grockit), which is building an online learning platform and community using game mechanics to connect experts with students. In both cases, the best teachers with rise to the top and command the highest rate.
As for my Mandarin lessons, I might sign up with Liu Jin Shan, who has some terrific testimonials and brings a nice mix between Western teaching styles and actual time living in Mainland China. At $25/hr he seems like a bargain. Time to find out.
Remember the movie Minority Report? An eery feeling came over me when I poked around in the beta of Viewzi search. Suddenly search has a whole new graphical interface that makes Google (yes, i know) look old guard. It organizes search into a series of pre-set "views," each formatted to best serve that type of search. There's a Photo view, a Multisource view (Google, Yahoo, Ask, etc.), an MP3 search view, a Shopping view, even a TechCrunch view. (Arrington will be proud.) You can easily drag photos and site thumbnails, which then expand seamlessly as previews. Very fresh and smooth. Someone even dubbed Viewzi "the iPhone of search."
Their "Viewzi 101" video is a nifty walkthrough of how it works - and is suspiciously familiar to the Twitter video I posted a little while back. The printed out pages of Google search is a clever touch and perhaps a subtle dig.
My first search on Viewzi was "Hollywood," which incidentally brought up Hollywood, Alabama under the weather view and then a series of young-Hollywood club shots in the photos view and series of songs with "Hollywood" in the title under the MP3 view.
Next search was Robert Scoble, since he hooked up the invite. I had a feeling of being at CTU on "24" and pulling up someone's whole identity in a matter of seconds. Quite a lot out there about him, and plenty of photos.
Definitely fun to play with, especially for photos and visual media. I'm just not sure it can replace Google as my goto search in terms of fast and reliable hits. Just not fast enough yet, but hey, it's still in beta.
I've had to take a few days off from the blog, after hearing that my father, Dick Hustvedt, had passed away last week. It's never easy losing a parent. In many ways, I grew up never really knowing him as others did, though I grew to love and appreciate him in my own way. He was severely head injured back in 1984 in an auto accident on his way to the office. Following the accident, he spent the past 20 years or so at Robin Hill Farm in New Hampshire, a truly incredible community for adults with traumatic brain injury.
I want to thank all those who have reached out to me over the past week to share your thoughts, sympathy, and especially your fond memories of Dick from years past. Many worked with him at Xerox or DEC (now HP) and it is through your stories and reflections over the years that I have built a solid and profound respect for him. Thank you.
For all those who continue to use and champion OpenVMS, it makes me proud to see his work live on. For more info on OpenVMS today, see: HP's OpenVMS systems site.
There will be a memorial service in Concord, MA in a few weeks time. For updates, see the Boston Globe notice.
Been a busy few days. Watching a lot of channel content on Joost and it's open-source competitor of sorts, Miro. I'll have a more detailed review of these stand-alone web TV (IPTV) players. Both are pretty immersive and I've been looking at the current state of web TV content.
I think we're on the cusp of something very big in this space. When I boot up my web TV players and watch the latest from my chosen channel feeds, I get that strange feeling that I've seen something like this before. Oh wait, that's right - the rise of cable TV. I think where we are at now with web TV content and these nascent channels like Mahalo Daily, The Onion News Network (ONN), TEDtv, etc. is like where cable TV was in the 80's. You had the established networks and then these upstart fringe channels shaking things up. We're just getting started here, and it's going to be big.
In a nutshell, PrepMe uses the web to deliver an adaptive online course ($299 or $499) that "learns where students are weak and delivers customized materials to focus on each student’s individual weaknesses." The course is supplemented by continuous online testing and personal tutoring (in the $499 platinum course) from top-scoring college students who are experts in the test.
What struck me first about this company is how committed they are to building a long-term and respected business, not just barreling full-speed to the nearest exit. I think it starts at the top, with Karan being a perfect example of a next-gen CEO: actively engaged with the market. And that means listening and responding to the feedback from its customers, employees, advisors, the media and yes, even the bloggers. This is crucial when a company is first starting to grow, since that's when a company builds the framework and systems that will be with them for years.
Take for example, a May 2006 Consumer Reports review of ten online-only SAT prep options. PrepMe, quite new at this point, made the review. The review was less than rosy, mostly citing technical issues related to the platform they were using at the time. Karan responded to the report with a letter pointing out their quick resolution of the platform issues along with the move "onto our own adaptive learning technology which is far more robust than the ASP we were using in the past." He made available his email and phone in the letter, welcoming anyone who experienced any issues with the early version to continue prep for free.
To be sure, the pre-college standardized tests (SAT, ACT, PSAT) are some of the most challenging to manage from a customer service perspective. You have a transient test-taking population (customer) who takes the test on average about two times, who is under intense pressure in the highly selective college admissions process, and isn't exactly what you would call "loyal." Often it's parents making the buying decision but the student who ultimately must consume the prep course and tutoring. PrepMe bridges this gap by partnering with over 110 schools (so far) to offer prep services on an institutional level to enrolled students. This allows for longer-term relationships with educators who in turn have relationships with students and their parents.
I had a chance to ask Karan what lies ahead for PrepMe and he was excited about the upcoming addition of GMAT and LSAT prep, which currently in development. Also in the works, podcast versions of its classes that are viewable on iPods and other mobile devices. "We're trying to be the test-prep company for a new generation," says Goel. They sure seem on the right track.