Last night I had the pleasure to have Danish serial entrepreneur Nikolaj Nyholm over for dinner with 3 of my four kids. Nikolaj and I share many things, we are active dads (Nikolaj has 3 children ages 7 to 1), we have both started WiFi companies along a similar model, he started Organic Networks and I started Fon, and we are now both experimenting with novel uses of photography on the internet, in his case Polar Rose and in mine Twitxr. During dinner we spoke about different subjects, some had little to do with the internet and were centered more around my children and these included the pros and cons of the highly unusual British High School system that my children attend (this matter deserves another post) and others related to the internet and specificially Polar Rose.
Polar Rose has 21 employees focused on one complex subject and that is to build an intelligent competitor to Google Image searches. Now this is what is going on at Polar Rose now. Let´s take my son Tom Varsavsky as an example. These are the results of googling Tom Varsavsky´s images. As you can see results are all over the place. There are pictures of my baby Son Leo instead of him, pictures of Esther Dyson instead of him, and many pictures of me instead of him. Now Polar Rose only has only two pictures of Tom Varsavsky as its results. But they are indeed pictures of Tom. Now what Polar Rose is aiming at doing is to develop an image crawling technology that can actually crawl the net for pictures and recognize without human intervention the faces of people. During our brainstorming I gave Nikolaj sugestions that I thought would help him advance his venture. One was to work with us at Twitxr since at Twitxr many people are taking pictures of people and we could cross link with Polar Rose and help Polar Rose increase its membership of recognized individuals from its current 189.000. But Twitxr is nothing compared to the number of people that are being tagged at Facebook every day. Not a week goes by with me getting a message that says, such and such a person tagged a picture of you. I wonder if Facebook would be open to allow these information be public provided that Facebookers authorize it. And then there´s the opportunity to crawl flickr. When I went to Polar Rose for example and tried to find my friend Jack Hidary he was not tagged yet. But Flickr had public pictures of him. As Nikolaj remarked what is interesting about Polar Rose is that its technology can find the right person in group pictures.
My conclusion after talking to Nikolaj is that while Polar Rose still has way to go and it is in a very early stage what they are trying to do has a market because as gossip magazines show people are extremely attracted to pictures of people, for all sorts of reasons, and Google Images is both number one and still a very mediocre product (with all respect to Google who are my investors at Fon).
Predictify is a prediction platform where users can predict the future and build a reputation based on their accuracy. It’s a website aggregating collective wisdom, in the belief that a large group of normal people can better predict the outcome of uncertain events then a small group of experts. On Predictify you can find all kinds questions and predictions, from stock to pop culture, to US presidential elections. For example, the state of California recently began marrying gay and lesbian couples, so on Predictify you can now find questions such as First California Gay Divorce. More interesting questions are on the site, such as who will be Obama’s vice president or will Yahoo remain an independent company through the end of 2009.
Users can build a reputation based on their accuracy, and even get paid if they answer “premium” questions, such as questions asked by a marketer or a brand, for which Predictify charges who is asking and shares part of the revenue with the people who answer. Clever.
The guys at FON Labs have been very busy this week improving Twitxr.com. Twitxr now has a new logo and a new homepage and a bunch of minor changes that should help us grow faster. Below you can see before and after, we hope you’ll like the new look!
We now have two more mobile applications that will help our users easily share pictures from their mobile phones. Using our API (Application Programming Interface), Justin Braun created a Twitxr application for Windows Mobile phones and Tristan Helmich developed one for Java phones (tested on Nokia, Simens and Motorola phones). We are greateful to them for the great work they did, as we are to Iván Martínez of Atelmedia and Eva María Pajarón who are working on a Twitxr client for Blackberry devices.
The people like you and me, who spend a lot of time on the internet are still a minority. And many outside our world consider us insensitive, glued to screens. And they are partly right as we do frequently ignored loved ones for an extra moment testing the latest site. But sometimes there are moments that even out of a computer screen you feel emotion. In this case sadness. This is one.
I am looking at the photo flow at Twitxr amazed that this simple idea that came out of Fon Labs in Gerona, Spain, is now a global phenomenom. But as I am looking at the timeline with pictures coming from Japan, USA, Argentina, Spain, Germany, Holland, I find Omjeyed from Iran. And I see that he is sick. I also see that he writes in a language that I don´t understand, with characters that are beautiful, much nicer than ours. Yet so obscure. I also see he does a little drawing, that is special. And I want to wish him well, I hope you have a speedy recovery Omjeyed.
Image via WikipediaLast night I had the pleasure of having Price Roe from the Department of Homeland Security over for dinner at my home in Madrid. Given my negative views of the Bush Administration, having Price over was an act of political tolerance but two things were in his favor. One was that he was being introduced by my friend Auren Hoffman, and the other that Homeland Security deals with everything that happens inside US borders. If there has been any success since 911 it has been that there have been no further attacks in American soil.
Price and his boss, Michael Chertoff, the Secretary of Homeland Security, had to be doing something right to prevent them. I was especially interested in this subject and I decided I wanted to learn more about it since. It seemed fitting, seeing as the focus of my foundation, the Safe Democracy Foundation, has been terrorism and its prevention.
So without knowing Price Roe I invited him over and the results were fascinating: he is not just a great person to deal with, thanks to his visit and our conversations I learned a great deal about the challenges facing security agencies in the United States. Our dinner turned out to be one of those Spanish style dinners that start at 9:30 and go on until 3 am. Americans, who rarely have such long dinners and endless conversations, manage to do this in Spain habits because the jetlag is in their favor. When they are done at 3 am, its 9,pm in Washington (which is the time that dinners end there, from what I have seen) and they are ready to go home. All they need to do when they come here is continue living on Washington time.
So what does the Department of Homeland Security do? Well, the first surprise was that it handles both the management of natural disasters like Katrina with the management of man made disasters like the 911. Moreover, it controls American borders and has many other duties. Overall it has 200K employees who were previously distributed among many other agencies and now act in sync.
For example, until recently, the State Department, which gives out visas, was not coordinated with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services whose duties used to belong to the Department of Justice. There are many cases like this. The Department of Homeland Security also absorbed the Secret Service, which for some reason used to belong to the Treasury. Wikipedia has a good description of how Homeland Security looks like now. Interistingly FEMA is now part of Homeland Security and Price Roe was appointed after the Katrina fiasco to help streamline the agency and be truly prepared for another major natural disaster.
Of the many topics we covered last night, I would like to focus on one in particular, and that is a specific challenge that Homeland Security faces in USA in relation to their counterparts in Europe. Basically, this challenge boils down to the fact that Europeans have, on average, a more favourable view of government.
Americans historically don’t view their government with as much favour. European governments, as a result of the rise in terrorism and crime that started in the 60s (Europe has had German, Italian, French, UK, and Spanish terrorist groups operating at different times in the last 4 decades) have implemented a number of simple national and pan European measures that Americans are only now attempting to implement and with great difficulty. For example, have you noticed that USA is a country that is unusually tough to get into but is incredibly easy to leave? The USA is the only country I know where you only meet customs officials on the way in. In Europe they stop you as well on the way out, so if you have committed a crime. they nail you right then and there. But Price was telling me how hard it has been and still is to convince the Airlines to accept a system by which people who leave the country also have to go through passport control.
This was just a sample of a number of simple measures that we have in Europe and that are either illegal, inconstitutional or practically impossible to implement in America. In the UK, for example, carriers and wifi operators have to comply with RIPA an act so strict that makes the Patriot act look simple. This is something that they don´t have to do in the States. But this is one minor example of the ever increasing police powers that governments get in Europe to the point in which yesterday there was major tension when Gordon Brown once more tried to reduce the civil liberties of the British people for the sake of security. Indeed today there´s a war going on right now because the Gordon Brown government is in the middle of a scandal because in the States for example no agreement has been reached on what should a National ID look like even though Congress passed a law requiring the creation of such ID. Price shared with me a lot of anecdotes that showed how difficult it is for the Federal Government to convince each state to comply with this law. The key is leverage. When the Federal Government decided to raise drinking age nationwide to 21, they told each State that their compliance w didn’t comply, they would lose Federal highway hunds. But what can they tell them vis a vis a National ID. As a result nationwide police has a very hard time simply corroborating people´s identity. In Spain, we now have an electronic National ID that is extremely hard to counterfeit and is machine readable. The US has managed to make their passports machine readable but only 18% of the USA population has passports, according to Price, and naturally, they rarely have them avalaible when they are inside the country. Also, there are many other actions that European law enforcement offices can take that Americans cannot.
European police can stop cars for any reason. American police can only stop them if they have committed a traffic violation. Europeans can arrest people simply for not carrying a national ID. American police can only do that if someone commits a crime without having in ID, but not having an ID in itself is not a crime. Moreover, European security forces have installed video cameras throughout the major cities of Europe that constantly film its citizens. An extreme example of this is the City of London. According to Price, while such cameras exist, it would be extremely hard to get Americans to accept their implementation.
As I listened to Price I was thinking that in ideal world I would want to be an American, mistrustful of a big, over-involved government. However, with things being the way they are, and with the threat that terrorists a government that I can influence and vote for than to be blown up by a terrorist organization. Having said, individual liberties are very important and I think that, for example, the UK is going too far in the direction of ignoring them.
Observatorio is an art project by Clara Boj y Diego Díaz, showing the “WiFi panorama” around the area where it’s been installed. It was designed to promote reflection and discussion on free networks (“redes libres”).
It’s built with a powerful WiFi unidirectional antenna, a camera and a viewfinder that shows a representation of WiFi networks in the area overlayed on the actual image of the area. It’s installed in the tower of the Universidad Laboral in Gijón (Spain).
Erepublik is a company co-founded by my friend Alexis Bonte, developing a “Massive Online Social Strategy Game”, half strategy game, half social network that has now more then 20,000 registered users, while still in private beta. Erepublik is another global start up managed from Madrid by a Non Spaniard or New Spaniards (immigrants like myself), others include Tuenti, Mobuzz, Vpod.tv, Meneame, Fon and Hipertextual.
Erepublik is played on a accelerated browser based version of the real world (1 Erepublik month is like 4 years in real life). All citizens are real people interacting with each other as politicians, entrepreneurs, soldiers, journalists, etc. Their goal is to develop their own country’s economy, with politics, business or even war.
The company has just closed a new round of financing from top entrepreneurs and investors like Brent Hoberman (co-founder of lastminute.com and founder of mydeco.com) and Stefan Glaenzer (Executive Chairman of Mendeley and Chairman of Last.fm), along with AGF Private equity (one of the leading French Venture Capitalists).
Send me an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to get an invite to try Erepublik.
WooMe is a company founded by Stephen Stokols and George Berkowsk. They created an online version of speed dating, a place to meet interesting people using video, audio and a few minutes of your time.
Users sign up to the site, create and personalize their profile, create a session, invite the people they find more interesting and wait for their session to start. They then have up to two minutes to chat to each of the participants, and finally decide who they “woo” and who they’re not into. If two users woo each-other they’ll have a chance to get each other’s contact information using their Woo credits (now given out for free).
Using video and audio for these “online introductions” or speed dates is a smart idea and technologies like Flash allow Woome to offfer all this in an easy to use environment, without requiring any download. People use WooMe not only to find their soul mates, but also to meet friends or chat about any topic.
The website is getting extremely popular between 18-24 year-olds, doubling their traffic every month.
A couple of weeks ago I met with the founders of Mendeley, a tool for researchers and students that because of a commonality of investors, it could be called the Last.fm for research. As Last.fm tracks the music you listen to and, basing on your taste, helps you discover new music and people, Mendeley helps you manage, share and discover research papers and find new articles and people with similar research interests using a recommendation engine. Mendeley also allows you to keep track of what is going on in your research field and shows you statistics about up and coming topics and authors.
The application automatically extracts metadata from academic papers and saves it into a library database. Users can then search across all their papers, share their library with others and receive recommendations based on their interests. I saw a demo and was very impressed. It´s been a while since I was doing my 2 Master´s at Columbia University and I had to do research but I certainly wished I had had Mendeley back then in the 80s.
Mendeley was founded by two Ph.D. students (Victor Henning and Jan Reichelt) and one Computer Science grad (Paul Foeckler) living in London. They have been recently joined by Stefan Glänzer, who was the first investor and executive chairman of Last.fm.
Image via WikipediaI just had lunch with Brian A Gallagher, President and CEO of the United Way and I was surprised to find out that United Way gives away $4bn per year of which half of that money is given away outside of the United States. As you may know America as a country is extremely stingy when it gets to US Foreign Aid as a percentage of GDP. The European Union is a much larger international donor than USA. But what I wonder is how the figures would add up if you start including as US foreign aid US private donations. I certainly think that the efforts of United Way, or the Gates foundation should be added to the US foreign aid figures to make them more realistic.