August 2014

United Way’s Skype Surprise of a Lifetime

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In the offices of United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley, it was whispered about, hoped for, tantalized—but none of us could ever see a way to do it. How could we capture the moment.

Every year, United Way gives out Marian L. Heard Scholarships to a selection of incoming college students from Boston, through the Merrimack Valley. The scholarship money is pivotal for these kids, most of whom are the first in their family to go to college. It’s a big deal and we always hear after-the-fact that the recipients go crazy when they learn they get the scholarship. (As an added benefit, MLH scholars are matched with e-coaches, community volunteers who offer guidance and encouragement through the students’ new college experience.) That was the moment.

How could we find a way to see these kids’ reactions in real-time? That was the Golden Ticket. Some ideas included conference calls and a Publisher’s Clearinghouse-like door-to-door surprise, but were quickly dismissed because of either lack of emotional heft or logistical impossibility.

Finally the solution presented itself: Skype. And that led us to our pals at Microsoft New England. After a flurry of emails, a plan crystallized: we would tell the scholarship candidates they needed to Skype us for one final round of interviews before a decision could be made. Then, we’d drop the shocker on them, that they had actually already been selected for the scholarship.

Granted, this bit of subterfuge may have been stressful for the scholars, but we were confident the payoff would be worth it. And it was. You couldn’t script this stuff any better. Through the course of the afternoon, United Way staff, set up expertly in one of the NERD Center conference rooms dialed up the students, built up the suspense then hit them with some of the best news of their young lives. Reactions varied from boisterous laughter to stunned disbelief to grateful weeping. But, we won’t spoil it for you. Take a peek at the video and see for yourself.

So big thanks to the NERD Center (and super-tech Kevin McPherson in particular) for setting up the conferences and processing the video footage. What came out of that room that day was an experience no one will forget.

3 Not-To-Miss Events This Week at Microsoft New England

Check out the full Facebook album for more photos from our //oneweek Hackathon!

Check out the full Facebook album for more photos from our //oneweek Hackathon!

Stop tweeting about summer’s end and start tweeting about these great upcoming events!

Here are three not to miss this week:

_KRyabg51) IT Series: Resourcing for Innovation and Idea Incubation
At Microsoft Technology Center in the Envisioning Room
Tuesday, August 26, 8:00am – 9:30am
Twitter: @MSNewEngland, @BABCNE, @MassChallenge

Join Steve Ramsay, Director of the Microsoft Enterprise Technology Center – Boston and speakers from the US and UK, for a truly interactive conversation on ‘Resourcing for Innovation and Idea Incubation’.

Using Microsoft Lync technology we will gather experts from the United Kingdom and the United States to discuss business growth challenges and innovative solutions for early-stage companies.  Business accelerators will highlight routes-to-growth and will contrast this approach to that taken by large scale operations.

Speakers:

  • Chris Howard, Managing Director, MassChallenge
  • Paul Smith, Founder Campus North Incubator, Newcastle upon Tyne

Participants will gain an understanding of what has successfully worked for well known high-growth companies in Boston and Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, what resources are immediately available locally and in the UK, make connections with incubators and innovators from across The Pond, and (potentially!) identify areas of opportunity for business their own growth through learning acquired and connections made with the speakers.

The event is complimentary and limited to 50 seats.  Reservations will be dealt with on a first come – first served basis.

GWC2) Girls Who Code Graduation
Wednesday, August 27, 5:00pm – 8:00pm
Twitter: @GirlsWhoCode

Students from the summer’s Girls Who Code session will demo their final projects and will participate in their graduation ceremony.


3) Social Media Breakfast Boston: Brand Experiences at the Intersection of Digital + Physical

Thursday, August 28, 8:00am – 10:30am
Twitter: #SMB35 | @pillpack @ProvenirEngage @bealmighty

The Social Media Breakfast Boston networking and lecture series is dedicated to exploring the world of digital, mobile and social and its impact on business and culture.

The Social Media Breakfast Boston networking and lecture series is dedicated to exploring the world of digital, mobile and social media and its impact on business and culture.

Our next breakfast is August 28th and will focus on the intersection of Digital + Physical and the interactions that are forever changing how a consumer experiences a brand and their products and services. From interactive experiences within retail stores or at point-of-sale, to digitally enabled products, to experiential events that bridge the gap between online and offline behaviors—today’s brands must design interactions that meet customer needs simply and seamlessly across channel.

Join this session to hear local digital experience leaders within the retail, apparel/footwear and healthcare industries share their perspectives with the SMB community.

Current Speakers

  • TJ Parker – Co-founder and CEO, PillPack
  • Pat Cassidy – Head of Global Digital Brand Marketing, New Balance
  • Ian Fitzpatrick – Chief Strategy Officer, Almighty

Sponsors:

Social Media Breakfast 35 is sponsored by Almighty, an agency helping organizations build experiences and systems that start with human needs and deliver business value.

Microsoft New York Fellows Do Boston, Win HubHacks Challenge

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While hundreds of hackers were participating in Battlehack Boston this weekend—a global competition with the end game of $100,000—there was a very different sort of Hackathon happening at District Hall.

HubHacks, the first public sector hackathon organized by our new tech and social media savvy mayor Marty Walsh with his Office of New Urban Mechanics and the city’s Department of Innovation and Technology, took place over 26 hours this weekend in an effort to make the tedious permit application process way less so.

In other words, the people who were at this hackathon were doing it for one reason: to help. And to help our city.

Which is why a dramatic hat tip is in order for two of our own: Microsoft New York fellows and NYU rising seniors Fatima Sarah Khalid and Ken Chan. These two traveled to Boston and volunteered to help us out. And not only that, but their team won their challenge—and they have the fluorescent hoodies and “No Parking: Tow Zone” sign signed by Mayor Walsh to prove it.

Their teammates included Andrew Arace, a developer who works for the Boston’s Street and Address Management system (SAM), and Sam Berg, an Esri developer, who worked extensively on the map. Ken joined Jared Kirschner to work on the controllers, as well as the front end and everything to integrate the pieces of code together. Fatima filled in the gaps for the final design.

“We tried to make it as intuitive as possible,” Fatima explained as she pulled up the map app, called the City of Boston Official Address Search, on her Surface and told me to input my address.

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The challenge they won was one of the first steps to getting a permit, “Where’s my address.” It sounds simple but it’s not… or wasn’t before.

“You need to have the exact address and exact SAM ID to get a permit,” she said.

My address in Dorchester came right up when I typed it into their app, which basically looks just like Bing Maps and is extremely easy to use.

But for instance, if you were trying to sidestep the nightmare that is Moving Day in Allston by getting a permit for your UHAUL, imagine sweating profusely while trying to figure out which address you’d even input for the permit on the city’s old permit application website. And THEN checking to make sure the SAM ID wasn’t associated with any existing permits.

Fatima and Ken’s app makes it as simple as clicking the street corner closest to your new apartment. An untaken address pops up along with its SAM ID. Boom: now you can move on to checking for existing permits and then applying for yours. (advice: still shoot for an earlier move-in day, if you value your sanity.)

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“The purpose was to integrate it into the Boston permit site as well,” Ken told me. “It can be embedded,” he said as he pulled up the page.

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So there you have it. Two Microsoft New York fellows: saving sanity and saving lives. They’re not in it for the money, or the fame, or the sweet job offer from New Urban Mechanics (we’re lookin’ at you, Mr. Mayor!) … they’re just really good at what they do—one of the most useful things out there, in fact: civic hacking, AKA coding for good.

More Than Words: A Look at the Many Accessible Technologies at the UMass Amherst Public Library

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You may know that the University of Massachusetts Amherst has a public library. What you probably don’t know is all of the forward-thinking technological gems inside.

“UMass culture is about trying new things and taking risks,” Carol Connare, Director of Library Development & Communication told Microsoft New England. “Academic libraries are really changing.”

Ethnographic studies have been conducted in the Learning Commons to better understand how the library can serve all users. New microclimate test areas with modular mobile seating, and moveable writing surfaces “help us better understand how we can foster innovative thinking.”

Hundreds of public computers are readily available to be used for free by students and visitors alike, 24 hours a day during the semester. The publicly accessible computers are another core focus of UMass for their library, part of their “open access movement.”

The accessibility of technology is a big issue these days. How can we fight for a “level playing field” in an area where some don’t even have the means to participate?

“We want students as well as visitors to have access to as many things as possible,” Connare said. “This is what open, collaborative learning looks like.”

This is why one of Microsoft New England’s software grants this year went to the UMass public library, allowing for more than 200 publicly accessible computers to be outfitted with the latest Microsoft technology. All users can access the university’s vast store of print and digital resources in an integrated information environment, a place where there’s free access to technology and where reference librarians still personally answer questions and guide research.

“How do you embed technology in the space where users can make the most out of it?” Connare said this is the motivating quest behind how the library uses the grants. “They are a generous gift that keeps state-of-the-art things alive for the library.”

Rosie: Making Data-driven Decisions and Shopping Local More Convenient

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Microsoft’s recent announcement that we are Moving Food-Resilience Data to the Cloud and teaming up with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to host the Innovation Challenge, a series of developer activities related to food resilience in key U.S. metro areas (October 20 through December 10) made me think of a MassChallenge startup interested in food called Rosie.

I had the chance to catch up with Christine Keung, the Director of Rosie Boston to learn more about the business and how they view food resilience in Boston.

Microsoft New England: What is Rosie?

CK: Rosie empowers local merchants with e-commerce, delivery opportunities, and deep data services to compete in a fast changing digital landscape. With Rosie, consumers can shop online from their favorite local stores for same-day delivery or in-store pickup. Rosie improves quality of life for working parents, young professionals, and the mobility-impaired by making it easier than ever to purchase their groceries and take care of their household errands using their laptops, phones, or tablets.

Retailers leverage Rosie’s predictive shopping capabilities to fulfill digital orders, increase average basket size, improve operational performance, and measure individual customer engagement/retention.

Rosie empowers retailers to make data-driven decisions and make “shopping local” more convenient for consumers.

MSNE: Tell me more about how Rosie views food resilience.

CK: According to the USDA, 13.6 million Americans have limited access to nutritious food because they live far away from a supermarket and don’t have easy access to transportation. The USDA recognizes 37 cities in upstate New York as food deserts, areas where affordable and nutritious food is difficult to obtain, particularly for those without access to an automobile. Food deserts usually exist in rural areas and low-income communities. Rosie is currently live and operating in six locations in these regions. Rosie’s presence in these rural and suburban secondary markets has broken down traditional barriers to access to healthy and nutritious food.

We offer an agile alternative to solving the food desert problem—one that empowers the local businesses to be part of the solution. For example, one of our partners in Farmington, NY, Wade’s Market Center (wadesmarketcenter.com), has set up multiple Local Pickup points to address the food desert problems in their community. Local Pickup provides the convenience of delivery at a reduced cost by meeting customers at centrally located drop-off points. Rosie software helps grocery stores increase their coverage area without physical expansion. By connecting communities with local business, Rosie ensures nutritious healthy food options are available to everyone, everywhere.

MSNE: How does technology help Rosie to serve the civic community?

CK: Rosie uses technology to connect people, improve cities, and make government more effective. Additionally, Rosie spurs local economic development by partnering with local businesses to create innovative civic tech solutions. For example, in Syracuse, NY Rosie is partnered with Nojaim Bros. Supermarket. Nojaim’s is located in Syracuse’s Near West Side and with Rosie, provides residents in the downtown Syracuse area with access to affordable and healthy groceries. Most of the market’s current customers live on the Near West Side and South Side of the city, where the median household income is $13,902 in 2011.

Earlier this month, Rosie and Nojaim Brothers Supermarket publicly answered US Senator Charles Schumer’s and Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner’s call to action to bring a supermarket to downtown Syracuse. Schumer sought to bring a grocery chain from outside the community, yet Rosie’s same day delivery already provides residents in downtown Syracuse access to affordable, nutritious groceries, as well as addresses the transportation and parking issues associated with building a new supermarket in Downtown Syracuse.

Rosie and Nojaim Brothers ensure that residents get their groceries while supporting local businesses, which further invests in Syracuse’s economic growth and development. By advocating for local business, increasing access to fresh food, and operating in non-traditional markets, Rosie uses its innovative technology to make communities like Syracuse a better place to live and work.

Moving Beyond Supplier: What is the Role of Government Relative to Open Data?

dataThe benefits of open data are frequently cited in the civic technology literature: transparency, community engagement, and economic benefit. What exactly is meant by “economic benefit”?  And how can governments help unleash said economic value? A new report out by Andrew Stott, Senior Open Data Consultant at the World Bank, goes into more detail on both the economic benefits of open data, as well as recommendations to fully realize the potential innovation and economic gain of open data.

The economic benefits are compelling. According to Stott, seven sectors alone (Education, Transportation, Consumer Products, Electricity, Oil & Gas, Health Care and Consumer Finance) could generate somewhere between $3-5 trillion annually from leveraging open data.  I’d encourage everyone to look closer at this report for more specifics on the current (and potential) economic impact of open data.

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Beyond the economic benefit specifics in the report, what I found interesting were the recommendations to governments in order to promote innovation and economic benefit with their data sets. Many agencies at all levels of governments have found ways in recent years to open up their data; governments are becoming well-versed in what it means to be a supplier of data to the public. This openness with data is the foundational step to civic technology.

Stott makes a number of additional, compelling recommendations that could spur innovation and economic benefit of open data. Of these recommendations, a few resonated with my recent experience in the open data ecosystem and conversations I’ve had with people in the open data space:

  1. Release data that businesses see value in leveraging
  2. Ensure the data can continue to be shared openly as it is updated over time
  3. Create forums and approaches that support the on-going use of data (vs. a single time engagement like a hackathon with static data)

Many of Stott’s recommendations speak to the concept of data sustainability—namely, if innovation and economic benefit are to be gained from open data, that there is a need for a consistent, on-going and normalized set of data and processes to support said innovation. Innovations that rely on open data need to be able to depend on data being accurate, current and reliable. Additionally, the recommendations call for business relevance; that is, both the data and the processes need to be relevant to potential business opportunities and innovation.

While this need for both sustainability and business relevance in open data means greater effort in terms of a government’s approach to data collection and maintenance, it shows that civic technology is maturing from a nascent concept to one that both governments and private sector see as a viable opportunity for innovation and economic impact. I look forward to seeing how the ecosystem absorbs these recommendations and continues to innovate.

What are your thoughts? Do you agree or disagree with my take on the article? Let me know in the comments section.