Increasing trust, safety and security using a Regulation 2.0 approach

This is the latest post in a series on Regulation 2.0 that I’m developing into a white paper for the Program on Municipal Innovation at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

Yesterday, the Boston Globe reported that an Uber driver kidnapped and raped a passenger.  First, my heart go out to the passenger, her friends and her family.  And second, I take this as yet another test of our fledgling ability to create scalable systems for trust, safety and security built on the web.

This example shows us that these systems are far from perfect. This is precisely the kind of worst-case scenario that anyone thinking about these trust, safety and security issues wants to prevent.  As I’ve written about previously, trust, safety and security are pillars of successful and healthy web platforms:

  • Safety is putting measures into place that prevent user abuse, hold members accountable, and provide assistance when a crisis occurs.
  • Trust, a bit more nuanced in how it’s created, is creating the explicit and implicit contracts between the company, customers and employees.
  • Security protects the company, customers, and employees from breach: digital or physical all while abiding by local, national and international law.

An event like this has compromised all three.  The question, then, is how to improve these systems, and then whether, over time, the level of trust, safety and security we can ultimately achieve is better than what we could do before.

The idea I’ve been presenting here is that social web platforms, dating back to eBay in the late 90s, have been in a continual process of inventing “regulatory” systems that make it possible and safe(r) to transact with strangers.

The working hypothesis is that these systems are not only scalable in a way that traditional regulatory systems aren’t — building on the “trust, then verify” model — but can actually be more effective than traditional “permission-based” licensing and permitting regimes.  In other words, they trade access to the market (relatively lenient) for hyper-accountability (extremely strict).  Compare that to traditional systems that don’t have access to vast and granular data, which can only rely on strict up-front vetting followed by limited, infrequent oversight.  You might describe it like this:

reg-2-0-matrix

This model has worked well in relatively low-risk for personal harm situations.  If I buy something on eBay and the seller never ships, I’ll live.  When we start connecting real people in the real world, things get riskier and more dangerous.  There are many important questions that we as entrepreneurs, investors and regulators should consider:

  • How much risk is acceptable in an “open access / high accountability” model and then how could regulators mitigate known risks by extending and building on regulation 2.0 techniques?
  • How can we increase the “lead time” for regulators to consider these questions, and come up with novel solutions, while at the same time incentivizing startups to “raise their hand” and participate in the process, without fear of getting preemptively shut down before their ideas are validated?
  • How could regulators adopt a 2.0 approach in the face of an increasing number of new models in additional sectors (food, health, education, finance, etc)?

Here are a few ideas to address these questions:

With all of this, the key is in the information.  Looking at the diagram above, “high accountability” is another way of saying “built on information”.  The key tradeoff being made by web platforms and their users is access to the market in exchange for high accountability through data.  One could imagine regulators taking a similar approach to startups in highly regulated sectors.

Building on this, we should think about safe harbors and incentives to register.  The idea of high-information regulation only works if there is an exchange of information!  So the question is: can we create an environment where startups feel comfortable self-identifying, knowing that they are trading freedom to operate for accountability through data.  Such a system, done right, could give regulators the needed lead time to understand a new approach, while also developing a relationship with entrepreneurs in the sector.  Entrepreneurs are largely skeptical of this approach, given how much the “build an audience, then ask for forgiveness” model has been played out.  But this model is risky and expensive, and now having seen that play out a few times, perhaps we can find a more moderate approach.

Consider where to implement targeted transparency.  One of the ways web platforms are able to convince users to participate in the “open access for accountability through data” trade is that many of the outputs of this data exchange are visible.  This is part of the trade.  I can see my eBay seller score; Uber drivers can see their driver score; etc.  A major concern that many companies and individuals have is that increased data-sharing with the government will be a one-way street; targeted transparency efforts can make that clearer.

Think about how to involve third-party stakeholders in the accountability process.  For example, impact on neighbors has been one of the complaints about the growth of the home-sharing sector.   Rather than make a blanket rule on the subject, how might it be possible to include these stakeholders in the data-driven accountability process?  One could imagine a neighbor hotline, or a feedback system, that could incentivize good behavior and allow for meaningful third-party input.

Consider endorsing a right to an API key for participants in these ecosystems.  Such a right would allow / require actors to make their reputation portable, which would increase accountability broadly. It also has implications for labor rights and organizing, as Albert describes in the above linked post.  Alternatively, or in addition, we could think about real-time disclosure requirements for data with trust and safety implications, such as driver ratings.  Such disclosures could be made as part of the trade for the freedom to operate.

Related, consider ways to use encryption and  aggregate data for analysis to avoid some of the privacy issues inherent in this approach.  While users trust web platforms with very specific data about their activities, how that data is shared with the government is not typically part of that agreement, and this needs to be handled carefully.  For example, even though Apple knows how fast I’m driving at any time, we would be surprised and upset if they reported us to the authorities for speeding.  Of course, this is completely different for emergent safety situations, such as the Uber example above, where platforms cooperate regularly and swiftly with law enforcement.

While it is not clear that any of these techniques would have prevented this incident, or that it might have been possible to prevent this at all, my idealistic viewpoint is that by working to collaborate on policy responses to the risks and opportunities inherent in all of these new systems, we can build stronger, safer and more scalable approaches.

// thanks to Brittany Laughlin and Aaron Wright for their input on this post

Regulation and the peer economy: a 2.0 framework

As part of my series on Regulation 2.0, which I’m putting together for the Project on Municipal Innovation at the Harvard Kennedy School, today I am going to employ a bit of a cop-out tactic and rather than publish my next section (which I haven’t finished yet, largely because my whole family has the flu right now), I will publish a report written earlier this year by my friend Max Pomeranc.

Max is a former congressional chief of staff, who did his masters at the Kennedy School last year.  For his “policy analysis exercise” (essentially a thesis paper) Max looked at regulation and the peer economy, exploring the idea of a “2.0” approach.  I was Max’s advisor for the paper, and he has since gone on to a policy job at Airbnb.

Max did a great job of looking at two recent examples of peer economy meets regulation: the California ridesharing rules, and the JOBS act for equity crowdfunding, and exploring some concepts which could be part of a “2.0” approach to regulation.  His full report is here. Relatively quick read, a good starting place for thinking about these ideas.

I am off to meet Max for breakfast as we speak!

More tomorrow.

Web platforms as regulatory systems

This is part 3 in a series of posts I’m developing into a white paper on “Regulation 2.0″ for the Program on Municipal Innovation Harvard Kennedy School of Government.  For many tech industry readers of this blog, these ideas may seem obvious, but they are not intended for you!  They are meant to help bring a fresh perspective to public policy makers who may not be familiar with the trust and safety systems underpinning today’s social/collaborative web platforms.

Twice a year, a group of regulators and policymakers convenes to discuss their approaches to ensuring trust, safety and security in their large and diverse communities. Topics on the agenda range from financial fraud, to bullying, to free speech, to transportation, to child predation, to healthcare, to the relationship between the community and law enforcement.

Each is experimenting with new ways to address these community issues. As their communities grow (very quickly in some cases), and become more diverse, it’s increasingly important that whatever approaches they implement can both scale to accommodate large volumes and rapid growth, and adapt to new situations. There is a lot of discussion about how data and analytics are used to help guide decisionmaking and policy development. And of course, they are all working within the constraints of relatively tiny staffs and relatively tiny budgets.

As you may have guessed, this group of regulators and policymakers doesn’t represent cities, states or countries. Rather, they represent web and mobile platforms: social networks, e-commerce sites, crowdfunding platforms, education platforms, audio & video platforms, transportation networks, lending, banking and money-transfer platforms, security services, and more. Many of them are managing communities of tens or hundreds of millions of users, and are seeing growth rates upwards of 20% per month. The event is Union Square Ventures’ semiannual “Trust, Safety and Security” summit, where each company’s trust & safety, security and legal officers and teams convene to learn from one another.

In 2010, my colleague Brad Burnham wrote a post suggesting that web platforms are in many ways more like governments than traditional businesses. This is perhaps a controversial idea, but one thing is unequivocally true: like governments, each platform is in the business of developing policies which enable social and economic activity that is vibrant and safe.

The past 15 or so years has been a period of profound and rapid “regulatory” innovation on the internet. In 2000, most people were afraid to use a credit card on the internet, let alone send money to a complete stranger in exchange for some used item. Today, we’re comfortable getting into cars driven by strangers, inviting strangers to spend an evening in our apartments (and vice versa), giving direct financial support to individuals and projects of all kinds, sharing live video of ourselves, taking lessons from unaccredited strangers, etc. In other words, the new economy being built in the internet model is being regulated with a high degree of success.

Of course, that does not mean that everything is perfect and there are no risks. On the contrary, every new situation introduces new risks. And every platform addresses these risks differently, and with varying degrees of success. Indeed, it is precisely the threat of bad outcomes that motivates web platforms to invest so heavily in their “trust and safety” (i.e., regulatory) systems & teams. If they are not ultimately able to make their platforms safe and comfortable places to socialize & transact, the party is over.

As with the startup world in general, the internet approach to regulation is about trying new things, seeing what works and what doesn’t work, and making rapid (and sometimes profound) adjustments. And in fact, that approach: watch what’s happening and then correct for bad behavior, is the central idea.

So: what characterizes these “regulatory” systems? There are a few common characteristics that run through nearly all of them:

Built on information: The foundational characteristic of these “internet regulatory systems” is that they wouldn’t be possible without large volumes of real-time data describing nearly all activity on the platform (when we think about applying this model to the public sector this raises additional concerns, which we’ll discuss later). This characteristic is what enables everything that follows, and is the key distinguishing idea between these new regulatory systems from the “industrial model” regulatory systems of the 20th century.

Trust by default (but verify): Once we have real-time and relatively complete information about platform/community activity, we can radically shift our operating model. We can then, and only then, move from an “up front permission” model, to a “trust but verify” model. Following from this shift are two critical operating models: a) the ability to operate at a very large scale, at low cost, and b) the ability to explicitly promote “innovation” by not prescribing outcomes from the get go.

Busier is better: It’s fascinating to think about systems that work better the busier they are. Subways, for instance, can run higher-frequency service during rush hour due to steady demand, thereby speeding up travel times when things are busiest. Contrast that to streets which perform the worst when they are needed most (rush hour). Internet regulatory systems — and eventually all regulatory systems that are built on software and data — work better the more people use them: they are not only able to scale to handle large volumes, but they learn more the more use they see.

Responsive policy development: Now, given that we have high quality, relatively comprehensive information, we’ve adopted a “trust but verify” model that allows for many actors to begin participating, and we’ve invited as much use as we can, we’re able to approach policy development from a very different perspective. Rather than looking at a situation and debating hypothetical “what-ifs”, we can see very concretely where good and bad activity is happening, and can begin experimenting with policies and procedures to encourage the good activity and limit the bad.

If you are thinking: wow, that’s a pretty different, and powerful but very scary approach, you are right! This model does a lot of things that our 20th century common sense should be wary of. It allows for widespread activity before risk has been fully assessed, and it provides massive amounts of real-time data, and massive amounts of power, to the “regulators” who decide the policies based on this information.

So, would it be possible to apply these ideas to public sector regulation? Can we do it in such a way that actually allows for new innovations to flourish, pushing back against our reflexive urge to de-risk all new activities before allowing them? Can & should the government be trusted with all of that personal data? These are all important questions, and ones that we’ll address in forthcoming sections. Stay tuned.

Technological revolutions and the search for trust

For the past several years, I have been an advisor to the Data-Smart City Solutions initiative at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.  This is a group tasked with helping cities consider how to govern in new ways using the volumes of new data that are now available.  An adjacent group at HKS is the Program on Municipal Innovation (PMI), which brings together a large group of city managers (deputy mayors and other operational leaders) twice a year to talk shop.  I’ve had the honor of attending this meeting a few times in the past, and I must say it’s inspiring and encouraging to see urban leaders from across the US come together to learn from one another.

One of the PMI’s latest projects is an initiative on regulatory reform — studying how, exactly, cities can go about assessing existing rules and regulations, and revising them as necessary.  As part of this initiative, I’ve been writing up a short white paper on “Regulation 2.0” — the idea that government can adopt some of the “regulatory” techniques pioneered by web platforms to achieve trust and safety at scale.  Over the course of this week, I’ll publish my latest drafts of the sections of the paper.

Here’s the outline I’m working on:

  1. Regulation 1.0 vs. Regulation 2.0: an example
  2. Context: technological revolutions and the search for trust
  3. Today’s conflict: some concrete examples
  4. Web platforms as regulatory systems
  5. Regulation 2.0: applying the lessons of web platform regulation to the real world

Section 1 will be an adaptation of this post from last year.  My latest draft of section 2 is below.  I’ll publish the remaining sections over the course of this week.

As always, any and all feedback is greatly appreciated!

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Technological revolutions and the search for trust

The search for trust amidst rapid change, as described in the Seattle ridesharing example, is not a new thing.  It is, in fact, a natural and predictable response to times when new technologies fundamentally change the rules of the game.

We are in the midst of a major technological revolution, the likes of which we experience only once or twice per century.  Economist Carlota Perez describes these waves of massive technological change as “great surges”, each of which involves “profound changes in people, organizations and skills in a sort of habit-breaking hurricane.”[1]

This sounds very big and scary, of course, and it is.  Perez’s study of technological revolutions over the past 250 years — five distinct great surges lasting roughly fifty years each — shows that as we develop and deploy new technologies, we repeatedly break and rebuild the foundations of society: economic structures, social norms, laws and regulations.  It’s a wild, turbulent and unpredictable process.

Despite the inherent unpredictability with new technologies, Perez found that each of these great surges does, in fact, follow a common pattern:

First: a new technology opens up a massive new opportunity for innovation and investment. Second, the wild rush to explore and implement this technology produces vast new wealth, while at the same time causing massive dislocation and angst, often resulting in a bubble bursting and a recession.  Finally, broader cultural adoption paired with regulatory reforms set the stage for a smoother and more broadly prosperous period of growth, resulting in the full deployment of the mature technology and all of its associated social and institutional changes.  And of course, by the time each fifty-year surge concluded, the seeds of the next one had been planted.

CSU929

image: The Economist

So essentially: wild growth, societal disruption, then readjustment and broad adoption.  Perez describes the “readjustment and broad adoption” phase (the “deployment period” in the diagram above), as the percolating of the “common sense” throughout other aspects of society:

“the new paradigm eventually becomes the new generalized ‘common sense’, which gradually finds itself embedded in social practice, legislation and other components of the institutional framework, facilitating compatible innovations and hindering incompatible ones.”[2]

In other words, once the established powers of the previous paradigm are done fighting off the new paradigm (typically after some sort of profound blow-up), we come around to adopting the techniques of the new paradigm to achieve the sense of trust and safety that we had come to know in the previous one.  Same goals, new methods.

As it happens, our current “1.0” regulatory model was actually the result of a previous technological revolution.  In The Search for Order: 1877-1920[2], Robert H. Wiebe describes the state of affairs that led to the progressive era reforms of the early 20th century:

Established wealth and power fought one battle after another against the great new fortunes and political kingdoms carved out of urban-industrial America, and the more they struggled, the more they scrambled the criteria of prestige. The concept of a middle class crumbled at the touch. Small business appeared and disappeared at a frightening rate. The so-called professions meant little as long as anyone with a bag of pills and a bottle of syrup could pass for a doctor, a few books and a corrupt judge made a man a lawyer, and an unemployed literate qualified as a teacher.

This sounds a lot like today, right?  A new techno-economic paradigm (in this case, urbanization and inter-city transportation) broke the previous model of trust (isolated, closely-knit rural communities), resulting in a re-thinking of how to find that trust.  During the “bureaucratic revolution” of the early 20th century progressive reforms, the answer to this problem was the establishment of institutions — on the private side, firms with trustworthy brands, and on the public side, regulatory bodies — that took on the burden of ensuring public safety and the necessary trust & security to underpin the economy and society.

Coming back to today, we are currently in the middle of one of these 50-year surges — the paradigm of networked information — and that we are roughly in the middle of the above graph — we’ve seen wild growth, intense investment, and profound conflicts between the new paradigm and the old.

What this paper is about, then, is how we might consider adopting the tools & techniques of the networked information paradigm to achieve the societal goals previously achieved through the 20th century’s “industrial” regulations and public policies.  A “2.0” approach, if you will, that adopts the “common sense” of the internet era to build a foundation of trust and safety.

Coming up: a look at some concrete examples of the tensions between the networked information era and the industrial era; a view into the world of web platforms’ “trust and safety” teams and the model of regulation they’re pioneering; and finally, some specific recommendations for how we might envision a new paradigm for regulation that embraces the networked information era.

 

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Footnotes:

  1. Perez, p.4
  2. Perez, p. 16
  3. Weibe, p. 13.  Hat tip to Rit Aggarwala for this reference, and the idea of the “first bureaucratic revolution”

The magic of making hard things easy

I wrote earlier this week about how life is, generally, hard.  There’s no question about that.

One of my favorite things about the Internet, and probably the most exciting thing about working in venture capital, is being around people who are working to re-architect the world to make hard things easier.  And by easier, I mean: by designing clever social / technical / collaborative hacks that redesign the problem and the solution.

Yesterday, I was out in SF for USV’s semiannual Trust, Safety and Security summit — Brittany runs USV portfolio summits twice a month and one of the ones I don’t miss is this one.  It brings together folks working on Trust and Safety issues (everything from fraud, to bullying, to child safety, to privacy) and Security issues (securing offices & servers; defending against hacker attacks, etc.).  Everyone learns from everyone else about how to get better at all of these important activities.

Trust, Safety and Security teams are the unsung heroes of every web platform.  What they do is largely invisible to end users, and you usually only hear about them when something goes wrong.  They are the ones building the internal systems that make it possible to buy from a stranger online, to get into someone’s car, to let your kid use the internet.  If web platforms were governments, they would be the legislature, law enforcement, national security, and social services.

Often times at these summits, we bring in outside guests who have particular expertise in some area.  At yesterday’s summit, our guest was Alex Rice, formerly head of Product Security at Facebook, and now founder of HackerOne.  Side note: it was fascinating to hear about how Facebook bakes security into every product and engineering team — subject for a later post.  For today: HackerOne is a fascinating platform that takes something really hard — security testing — and architects it to be (relatively) easy, by incentivizing the identification and closing out of security holes in web applications and open source projects.

The magic of HackerOne is solving for incentives and awkwardness, on both sides (tech cos and security researchers).  Security researchers are infamous for finding flaws in web platforms, and then, if the platforms don’t respond and fix it, going public.  This is only a semi-effective system, and it’s very adversarial.  HackerOne solves for this by letting web platforms sign up (either in public or private) and attract hackers/researchers, and mediating the process of identifying, fixing, and publicizing bugs, and paying out “bug bounties” to the hackers.  Platforms get stronger, hackers get paid.  In the year that it’s been operating, HackerOne has solved over 5,000 bugs and paid out over $1.6mm in bug bounties.

Thinking about this, it strikes me that there are a few common traits of platforms that successfully re-architect something from hard –> easy:

Structure and incentives: The secret sauce here mediating the tasks in a new way, and cleverly building incentives for everyone to participate.  Companies don’t like to admit they might have security holes. They don’t like to engage with abrasive outside researchers.  Email isn’t a very accountable mode of communication for this.  But HackerOne is figuring out how to solve for that — if every company has a HackerOne page, there’s nothing to fear about having one.  Building a workflow around bug finding / solving / publicizing solves a lot of practical problems (like making payments and getting multi-party sign off on going public).  Money that’s small for a big company is big for an individual researcher — one hacker earned $20k in bug bounties in a single month, for a single company, recently  Essentially, HackerOne is doing to security bugs what StackOverflow has done for technical Q&A: take a messy, hard, unattractive problem with a not-very-effective solution and re-architect it to be easy, attractive and magical.

Vastly broadening the pool of participants:  After the summit, I asked Alex how old the youngest successful bug finder on the platform is.  Any guesses?  11.  Right: an 11 year old found a security hole in a website and got paid for it.  Every successful hard –> easy solution on the internet does this.  Another of my favorite examples is CrowdMed, where a community of solvers makes hard medical diagnoses that other specialists could not – 70% of the solvers are not doctors.  (They typically solve it with an “oh, my friend has those symptoms; maybe it’s ____” approach, which you can only do at web scale).

Deep personal experience: It takes a lot of subject matter expertise to get these nuances right.  It makes sense that Alex was a security specialist, that Joel at stack overflow has been building developer tools for nearly two decades, and that Jared at CrowdMed was inspired by his own sister’s experience with a rare, difficult-to-diagnose disease.  I would like to think that it’s also possible to do this without that deep expertise, but it seems clear that it helps a lot.

The fact that it’s not only possibly to make hard things easy, but that smart people everywhere are building things that do it right now, is what gets gets me going every day.

Everyone is broken and life is hard

That’s a pretty depressing and fatalistic post title, but I actually mean it in a positive and encouraging way.  Let me explain.

It’s easy to go about your life, every day, feeling like everyone else has their shit together and that the things you struggle with are unique to you.

But then, when you get down to it, it turns out that everyone — every single person I know — is dealing with profoundly difficult and stressful things.  Sometimes that’s money, sometimes it’s health, sometimes it’s work or family or relationships.

It’s worth remembering this so that we cultivate some empathy when dealing with people — in general and in particular in difficult situations.

For example, with all of the controversy and strife over police brutality and race relations in the US, it’s easy for both sides to look at the other and not understand.  My personal default stance on all of that is: of course police treat black males unfairly, and black people in the US are so structurally fucked over that it’s hard to really comprehend it.

I also have a police detective as a future brother-in-law, who sees it from a different perspective.  From his, and my sister-in-law’s point of view, he does something incredibly dangerous and scary, for the safety of all of us; and further, he’s a good person and so are his colleagues.  He also sent me this video (graphic) which grounds those sentiments in reality.  And of course, he’s right.

Or take congress.  It’s poisonous there.  I went down to DC last week, and met with two Republican senate staffers, two Democrats, and an independent.  Reasonable people, all of them, and I’m sure each with their own struggles.  Now, I’m not in the thick of the DC mess, but it seems to me that it’s easy to lose sight of that and just fucking hate everyone in the heat of the fight.

Or the torture report. Jesus.

Or look at celebrities, or the ultra rich.  I have an old friend who is very wealthy and just went through a really painful divorce that broke up his family.  The number of privileged kids with broken lives due to substance abuse is staggering.

The number of upper middle class, middle class, and poor people with broken lives due to substance abuse is staggering. A fabulous couple I know, with one of the best relationships I’ve ever seen, is on the brink of losing it because of stress and alcohol.

We’ve got two close friends dealing with life-threatening cancer right now.  Someone in their thirties and someone in their sixties.

Everyone has these things, either directly or adjacently.  And they all go to work every day (or don’t), and get on twitter, and blog, and talk on TV, and run companies, and etc.

I am not exactly sure what my point is here, except to say that thinking about it this way really makes me want to redouble my support for my friends and family, and to give everyone (including myself) a break now and then, because there are things in their life that are broken, and life is hard for everyone.

Anti-workflow apps

“Workflow” apps hold so much promise.  Whether it’s a CRM, project management tool, to-do list, or some other tool, the promise in each case is to clean up our messy lives and help us be more organized and effective.

The problem, though, is that getting people to adopt a workflow is really really hard.  That’s why there are so many to-do apps out there, each one with a slightly different user experience, and none of them “just quite right” for everyone.  Workflow apps are like Goldilocks’ porridge.  Everyone is a little different, and it’s hard to get people to change.

A solution, then, is to take the “anti-workflow” approach.  Make me more productive without shoehorning me into a new workflow.

For example, Zander has been building a side project called Ansatz, which is the “anti-CRM”.  All you do is auth it into your email, and it builds intelligence your whole team can use, about who you know and how well.  It’s a CRM with out the CRM.

And yesterday, I found out about Taco, which is the “anti-ToDo” app — gives you a handle on all of the things you need to do (as defined by starred emails, github tasks, zendesk tickets, etc), and puts it right where you want it: on the Chrome new tab screen (side note: Taco should merge with Momentum, which I love).  So now, I can track and prioritize what I need to work on, without having to adopt a to-do routine that I’m guaranteed not to stick to.  Already, using this has helped me manage my inbox, as I know that I can archive starred emails knowing they’ll show up in my todo list, where I can prioritize them and work on them later when I have time.

Both of these examples build on perhaps the biggest productivity treasure trove: the inbox.  For a long time, I’ve wondered why we don’t see more and better email analytics tools (Rapportive was one of my favorites).  My inbox knows pretty much everything about me, and it’s really poorly organized.   Maybe it’s because entrepreneurs are afraid of Google Inbox (I suppose I would be).

Regardless, it seems to me that there are countless ways to help me make my inbox more meaningful to me, and nearly all of them can accomplish that with an anti-workflow approach, which is a winning one IMHO.

Finding Flow: writing vs. coding

When I first started to learn programming, about 15 years ago, I remember being surprised at how easy it was for me to get focused and stay focused.  I loved (and still love) the feeling of getting lost in a project, and could easily spend hours upon hours “in the zone”. No procrastination, no resistance, only focus and enjoyment.  It was easy for me to find Flow.

Part of why this surprised me so much is that I had always struggled to achieve (and still do) a similar state when writing.  Dating back to the first paper I ever wrote (maybe 4th grade? Certainly 6th grade), the feeling I most associated with writing a paper was terror, dread, resistance, and avoidance.  Procrastination station.

Programming and writing are pretty similar activities, so I often think about what makes programming such a joy and writing such a chore (for me at least).

Recently, the answer has been revealing itself to me, as I’ve been seeing a mindfulness therapist. Mindfulness centers around the practice of noticing your thoughts — developing a kind of “meta awareness” — so that you can then develop more control over how you react to your thoughts.  In other words, often times, the thing that troubles us isn’t our direct experience, but rather our reaction to that experience.  Mindfulness (at least at the stage I’m at) helps you distinguish between the two.

So, as I’ve been working on the mindfulness practice, and at the same time working on a few long-form writing projects, I’ve been paying a lot of attention to that moment when I find myself resisting the task.  When that feeling rises up in my belly that pushes me to turn away, break focus, check my email, snap out of whatever Flow I may have achieved.

And each time that happens, I’ve been trying to take a second and examine that feeling, try and figure out why I’m pulling away — trying to notice what, exactly, is going on.  It’s a really odd thing to do, and is pretty illuminating.

As far as I can tell so far, the difference between writing (where I feel the constant pull of avoidance) and coding (where I easily melt into Flow) is a certain form of terror, of not knowing “the answer” — whether that’s a certain wording, and idea, a structure, etc.  Whereas with coding, I don’t expect to know the answer, and bring wrong (try, break, repeat, repeat) is just part of the process.

Also, I often get intimidated by the scope of a writing project, whereas it’s easier for me to tackle programming work in pieces, so no one piece feels looming and huge.  Recently, I’ve been trying to focus my time on smaller pieces (now I’m going to focus on the outline, now I’m going to flesh out the second section, etc), and have had some success.

I am curious if others see this the same way, and/have techniques that work for them?

The thing is: writing is powerful, exciting and fun, if I can just get over the hump, and then stay in the zone.  So this is something I’m going to keep working on.

P.S.: other places I’ve found flow: skiing, cooking, doing carpentry/construction work, singing, playing drums, building powerpoint decks, talking on panels at conferences.  It sure is a good feeling.

Crowdsourcing patent examinations

Yesterday I spent part of the afternoon at a US Patent & Trademark Office roundtable discussion on using crowdsourcing to improve the patent examination process.  Thanks to Chris Wong for looping me in and helping to organize the event.  If you’re interested, you can watch the whole video here.

I was there not as an expert in patents, but as someone who represents lots of small startup internet companies facing patent issues, and as someone who spends a lot of time on the problem of how to solve challenges through collaborative processes (basically everything USV invests in).

Here are my slides:

And I’ll just highlight two important points:

First: why do we care about this?  Because (generally speaking) small internet companies typically see more harm than benefit from the patent system:

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And second, there are many ways to contemplate “crowdsourcing” with regard to patent examinations.

In the most straightforward sense, the PTO could construct a way for outsiders to submit prior art on pending patent applications — this is the model pioneered by Peer to Patent, and built upon by Stack Exchange’s Ask Patents community.

The challenge with this approach is that while structured crowdsourcing around complex problems is proven to work, it’s really hard to get right.  A big risk facing the PTO is investing a lot in a web interface for this, in a “big bang” sort of way (a la healthcare.gov), not getting it right, and then seeing the whole thing as a failure.

To that end, I posed the ideas that getting “crowdsourcing” right is really a cultural issue, not a technical issue.  In other words, making it work is not just about building the right website and hoping people will come.  Getting it right will mean changing the way you connect with and engage with “the crowd”.  As Micah Siegel from Ask Patents put it, “you can’t do crowdsourcing without a crowd”.

We also talked about the importance of APIs and open data in all of this, so that people can build applications (simple ones, like notifications or tweets, or complex ones involving workflow) around the exam process.

Tying those three ideas together (changing culture, going where “the crowd” already is, and taking an API-first approach), it seems like there is a super clear path to getting started:

  1. Set up a simple, public “uspto-developers” google group and invite interested developers to join the discussion there.
  2. Stand up a basic API for patent search that sites like Ask Patents and others could use (they specifically asked for this, and already have an active community).

That would be a really simple way to start, would be guaranteed to bear fruit in the near term, and would also help guide subsequent steps

Or, to put it in more buzzwordy terms:

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It felt like a productive discussion — I appreciate how hard it is to approach an old problem in a new way, and get the sense that the PTO is taking a real stab at it.

 

Support services for the Indie Economy

Over the course of the past year, I’ve been interviewed a bunch of times about the “peer economy” or the “sharing economy” (Fastco, Wired, NY Times, PBS Newshour), with most of the focus on the public policy considerations of all this, specifically public safety regulations and the impact on labor.

A question that comes up every time is: “aren’t all of these new independent workers missing out on the stability provided by full-time employment?”  (e.g., healthcare, steady work, etc).

My answer has been: yes, for the moment. BUT, there is an emerging wave of networked services which will provide this stability to independent workers, albeit in a different form than we’re used to seeing.

My colleague Albert describes this as the “unbundling of a job” — the idea that many of the things that have traditionally been part of a job (not just steady money and healthcare, but also sense of purpose, camaraderie, etc.), will in the future be offered by a combination of other organizations, services and communities.  Albert takes the idea a lot farther than I will here, where I just want to focus on some of the more immediately practical developments.

Thus far, this idea hasn’t gotten a lot of press attention, as the number of visible services providing this kind of support has been small.  But it is growing, and I expect we’ll see at least a small handful of these kinds of services gain traction in the next year.

The oldest and most venerable organization doing this is the Freelancers Union.  New Yorkers will recognize their subway ads that have run for decades, advertising their programs and member benefits.  Freelancers Union’s roots are in the pre-networked era, focusing largely on independent creative types in NYC, and their scope has grown dramatically over time, growing nationwide and adding services like insurance and medical plans.

What we expect to see a lot more of are services that are tailor-made to support independent workers who reach customers and deliver their work through web and mobile platforms.  For example, Peers, which is essentially Freelancers Union for the peer economy.

So, what kinds of services are we talking about exactly?  Here are a few of the kinds of services we’ve been noticing and think we’ll see more of:

  • Insurance: One of the biggest challenges in this space has been how to insure it.  We’re seeing established firms consider how to address the space, as well as brand new insurers that are tailor-made for it.
  • Job discovery & optimization: Many networked, independent workers make real-time decisions about what kind of work to do (e.g., driving vs. assembling furniture), as well as which platforms to use (uber vs lyft).  This is currently a manual, non-optimized process.  Increasing discoverability and lowering switching costs will also be an important competitive vector to ensure workers’ interests are being met by platforms. (e.g., sherpashare)
  • “Back office” – taxes, accounting, analytics:  Dealing with paperwork is a huge headache for busy independent workers, and we’re seeing a bunch of saas-type offerings to help people manage it all (e.g., 1099.isZen99, Benny)
  • Healthcare: Gotta have it.  This is a topic in its own right, and not expressly specific to the indie economy, but we are seeing massive experimentation and innovation in how independent actors can buy healthcare (e.g., teladoc, medigo to name 2 of many)

I suspect that by the end of 2015 we will not only have a much longer list of example issues and services, we’ll see that some of these have gotten traction and started to make a difference for independent workers.

So, if you’re a reporter covering this beat, I think this is an interesting angle to pursue.  If you’re a lawmaker or policymaker, I’d think about this as an important and growing part of the ecosystem.  And if you’re an entrepreneur working in this space, we’d love to meet you :-)

The Professional Amateur

One way I have described myself is as a “professional amateur”.  I am both deeply proud and deeply ashamed of that.  Let me explain.

For basically my whole career, I’ve been learning new fields and professions from the outside-in.  While I have an undergrad degree in Urban Studies, which ostensibly prepared me for interdisciplinary work regarding cities (and you could argue that’s exactly how my career has turned out), in practice I’ve spent the past 15 years learning other stuff and basically pretending to be a professional at it.  Design, programming, running a startup, tech policy, law, activism, “internet architecture”, market structure, venture finance.  In every case I’ve ended up diving in despite not really knowing anything, and figured it out as I went along.

(An aside: it’s pretty hard to do this without the internet.  Curious about history?  Start reading some Wikipedia articles.  Want to learn to code?  Head over to Codecademy, then make best friends with StackOverflow.  Confused by a legal term?  Google it.  Need to install shingles on your roof?  There are YouTubes for that.  So, it’s easier than ever to be kind of good at something.  Which is so fun.)

I also enjoy lots of different things, and feel like I’m better than average at most of them, (though I’m sure that’s a fallacy): baseball, singing, carpentry, ice skating, writing, cooking, water skiing, juggling, tennis, playing drums, playing piano, rock climbing, etc.  I am not the best at any of them, but I take a lot of pleasure from all of them.

The good way of looking at this is that I can confidently call myself a curious person.  And generally think of myself as capable,  Curious and capable.  I like that.  I can get behind that.

The bad way of looking at this is that it lacks focus.  And probably dedication & determination.  Feeling stuck on that music thing?  Fuck it, go build a shed.

And, it’s in tension with the idea of a “Half, not half-assed” approach.  Do less, but do it really well.   Then move on to the next thing.  I admire that approach, and really do believe it’s central to building a successful product. But it’s hard to pull off — as Eddie Wharton put it on Twitter yesterday: “the best ideas are easy to articulate, but hard to master.”

So, that’s the context.  I’m not looking for any answers, but just putting that out there in an effort to understand my real self.  But reflecting on this, perhaps there are a few rays of hope:

1) “Half, not half-assed” can apply to a lot of different things, and you could argue it’s more about tight execution and shipping than it is about a more broadly restricted agenda (37 signals, who coined that term, built lots of small, successful apps — though they ultimately shed them all and re-focused on Basecamp).  Maybe it’s fine to have lots of interests, and to invest time in different things, but make sure you actually ship.  And when you do, make sure it’s tight, focused, and not half-assed. (For example, USV has a relatively narrow investment thesis that constrains our outlook, but still ends up applying very broadly across sectors)

2) Perhaps having a “beginners mind” is a “deep” skill unto itself.  It certainly fits with the VC business, where one hour you’re talking healthcare and the next, video distribution.  As Andy points out, there are plenty of times when that’s not enough, but perhaps it’s something.

So, there you have it. For better and worse, here I am: a semi-pro, semi-proud, professional amateur.

Half, not half-assed

My favorite book on product development and startups is Getting Real, published in 2006 by the folks at 37signals (now Basecamp).  If you haven’t read it (it’s freely available online), it’s essentially a precursor to The Lean Startup (2011). Back when I was leading a team and running product and OpenPlans, it was like my bible. The copy we had at the office was tattered and torn.

One of my favorite ideas / chapters from the book is: “Half, Not Half-Assed”.  It’s short, so I’ll just include the whole thing here:

Build half a product, not a half-ass product
Beware of the “everything but the kitchen sink” approach to web app development. Throw in every decent idea that comes along and you’ll just wind up with a half-assed version of your product. What you really want to do is build half a product that kicks ass.

Stick to what’s truly essential. Good ideas can be tabled. Take whatever you think your product should be and cut it in half. Pare features down until you’re left with only the most essential ones. Then do it again.

With Basecamp, we started with just the messages section. We knew that was the heart of the app so we ignored milestones, to-do lists, and other items for the time being. That let us base future decisions on real world usage instead of hunches.

Start off with a lean, smart app and let it gain traction. Then you can start to add to the solid foundation you’ve built.

This is so important and also so hard to do.  Despite having appreciated this idea since 2006, and having told it to others countless times, I still have not mastered it, and still find myself falling in love with features and ideas that really just end up diluting my efforts.

I’ve been thinking about this because last week I had this exact advice delivered to me on two separate occasions, regarding two things we’re building at USV; once from Brittany and once from Fred.  In both cases they were right, and the advice was important and helpful.

So, there it is. Nearly 9 years later, still important and still helpful, still cleverly-titled :-)

I agree with Ted Cruz: let’s supercharge the Internet marketplace

There has been a lot of debate about how to protect Internet Freedom.

Today, Senator Ted Cruz has an op-ed in the Washington Post on the subject, which starts out with an eloquent and spot-on assessment of what we are trying to protect:

Never before has it been so easy to take an idea and turn it into a business. With a simple Internet connection, some ingenuity and a lot of hard work, anyone today can create a new service or app or start selling products nationwide.

In the past, such a person would have to know the right people and be able to raise substantial start-up capital to get a brick-and-mortar store running. Not anymore. The Internet is the great equalizer when it comes to jobs and opportunity. We should make a commitment, right now, to keep it that way.

This is absolutely what this is about. The ability for any person — a teenager in Des Moines, a grandmother in Brazil, or a shop owner in Norway — to get online and start writing, selling, streaming, performing, and transacting — with pretty much anyone in the world (outside of China).

This is the magic of the internet.  Right there.

By essentially a happy accident, we have created the single most open and vibrant marketplace in the history of the world.  The most democratizing, power-generating, market-making thing ever.  And the core reason behind this: on the internet you don’t have to ask anyone’s permission to get started.

And that “anyone” is not just the government — as we’re used to asking the government for permission for lots of things, like drivers licenses, business licenses, etc.

In fact, more importantly — “anyone” means the carriers whose lines you need to cross to reach an audience on the internet.  A blogger doesn’t have to ask Comcast’s or Verizon’s permission to reach its subscribers.  Neither does a small merchant, or an indie musician or filmmaker.

Contrast that with how cable TV works — in order to reach an audience, you need to cut a deal with a channel, who in turn needs to cut a deal with a carrier, before you can reach anyone.  It is completely out of the realm of possibility for me to create my own TV station in the Cable model.  In the Internet model, I can do that in 5 minutes without asking anyone’s permission.

What we don’t want is an internet that works like Cable TV.

So I agree with Ted Cruz — his description of the internet is exactly the one I believe in and want to fight for.

But where I think he and many others miss the point is that Internet Freedom is not just about freedom from government intervention, it’s freedom from powerful gatekeepers, who would prefer to make the internet look like Cable TV, controlling and restricting the mega marketplace we’ve been so lucky to take part in.

Let’s not let that happen.

p.s., I would encourage any conservatives pondering this issue to read James J. Heaney’s powerful and in-depth case for “Why Free Marketeers Want to Regulate the Internet

This is what an Internet Candidate looks like

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I just donated to Christina Gagnier‘s campaign for congress.

I’ve gotten to know Christina recently, and I really hope she’s able to pull through this race and make it.  We need smart people in DC who understand technology, tech issues, and tech policy. She is without a doubt one of those people.  She’s an entrepreneur and tech lawyer who knows these issues cold and has lived with them for a long time.

Smart DC consultants have told me that Christina is too far behind to win.  I’m not sure if that’s true or not.  But what I know is that she “gets” technology and tech policy.  And she’s not coming at it from a Silicon Valley perspective — she’s representing California’s 35th District, in the eastern part of LA county, where big technology companies are not the center of the economy, but technology is what is going to connect and power the local economy. Further, Christina has been out in the community nonstop for the last few months, including her Bold Ideas RV Tour over the last month, and I suspect the race will be closer than people think.

Christina gets that privacy and trust are central issues, that we need open networks and broadband infrastructure, and that issues like patent trolls (and software patents more generally) are hurting the tech-driven economy.

So, for those of you looking to make some last minute noise / contributions, I think Christina’s campaign is a great place to do it.

 

 

 

Disgusting

I got this in the mail:

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It’s an ad for an extended warranty, disguised as an urgent extension of existing coverage.

This makes we want to throw up.  A business blatantly based on tricking people.

“Immediate response to this notice required…. Our records indicate that you have not contacted us to have your vehicle service contract updated.”

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Implying that I have an existing service contract with them.

My wife saw this and thought it was something we neglected and needed to pay right away.  Imagine if you were 80 years old.

“immediate response to this notice required”:

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In the tiniest print on the page: “this is an advertisement to obtain coverage”:

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The disgusting company behind this is Endurance Warranty Services:

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Remind me and anyone I ever come in contact with never to do business with them.

Becoming a leader of men

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In terms of leadership, I’ve done some hard things.  Building teams, reorganizing a company, dealing with failure (and success), letting people go, navigating competition, etc.

But I suspect all of that will pale in comparison to what’s up next: this weekend I begin my career as a little league coach.  Starting Sunday, I’ll be leading a troupe of 5, 6 and 7 year-olds (including my son) on a journey to understand and enjoy the game of baseball.

I’ve been thinking a lot about all the coaches I had growing up, especially when I was really little. (I didn’t start playing baseball until I was 8, which is pretty different than 5, so I don’t have any direct comparisons to go on for this).  The more I think about it, the more I respect the coaches I had as a kid.  In particular the volunteer dad coaches (including my own) who had never done it before, and probably had no idea what they were doing either.

I’m really excited and also nervous.  As much as I played baseball as a kid, I honestly never really thought about it from the coach’s perspective.  From fundamental things like “hmm, what actually happens in a baseball practice” and “what are you actually supposed to teach 6-year-olds about baseball” to more subtle things like “how do build a good ‘bench culture’ that is lively and supportive”.  So there is a lot to figure out.

Not to beat a dead horse about the Internet being awesome, but already I’ve started to find some help online.  For instance, as Theo and I have been watching more baseball recently I’m realizing how actually complicated it is, and one question in particular has been tough to explain: force outs.  So I googled “how to teach kids force outs vs tag outs” and lo and behold I came across an excellent post on teaching the difference between a force out and a tag out, from a blog on teaching baseball to kids (with the tagline “Read how I fail so you don’t have to”).  Thank you Internet!

So, off I go.  If anyone has any tips on being a good coach and building a good/fun team — in general or for tiny person baseball in particular — I would love to hear them.

Every once in a while I’m reminded of how awesome the Internet is

I woke up this morning, early, to an email from my mother-in-law pointing me to this:

It’s the story of a 9-year-old boy who built an arcade out of cardboard boxes in his dad’s used auto parts shop. Kids at school teased him about it, and he had zero customers, but he had built something awesome. A filmmaker happened to stop by one day, was (rightfully) amazed, and did a short film about it, including organizing a flash mob to help get Caine some customers.  Simple, and totally awesome in its own right.  Since then:

“• Over $231,000 has been raised for Caine’s Scholarship Fund (which has been officially & formally set up!) thanks to over 19,000 individual donors
• Over 7 million views on YouTube and Vimeo
• Over 1 million views on our Part 2 followup Video
• Launched the Imagination Foundation and our first annual Global Cardboard Challenge with over 270 events in 41 countries engaging tens-of-thousands of kids worldwide in creative play.
• Caine was the youngest ever entrepreneur to speak at USC Marshall School of Business, Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, and recently spoke at TEDxTeen hosted by Chelsea Clinton. Caine also received the Latino Spirit Award from the California State Assembly, and a cardboard key to the city.
• Thousands and thousands of visitors to Caine’s Arcade (he still gets hundreds of customers every week!)
• Launching an Imagination campaign to engage 1 million kids in creative play”

…. which led me to revisiting Kid President, a youtube star who helped publicize Caine’s story.  I had forgotten about Kid President — he’s a young person (11 years old now) who gives amazing video pep talks (like this one for moms).  Turns out Kid has his own amazing story — he suffers from Osteogensis Imperfecta, or “brittle bone disease”, an incurable disease resulting in a lifetime of broken bones.  But he has compensated with an outsized positive outlook:

… which led me to checking out SoulPancake, Rainn Wilson’s production company which now backs Kid President, and which is dedicated to “chewing on life’s big questions.”

… which reminded me of my other favorite youtubers, the Gregory Brothers, who have made incredible  incredible videos “songifying” the news and other videos (my favorite is Double Rainbow, a songification of this).  Here is their behind-the-scenes look:

… at the process that resulted in this — the songified final 2012 presidential debate:

… the point of all this being: holy shit!  Kids. Making amazing stuff.  Making the world better.  Building huge audiences.  I am awestruck and inspired.

And then, I start thinking about how amazing it is that this is possible.  Because on the internet, everyone has a voice and can reach the world — being a 9-year-old kid building an elaborate box arcade isn’t weird, it’s fantastic.  Having an incurable bone disease isn’t a death sentence, it’s an opportunity to inspire people.  Being a crazy musical/artistic/geeky family isn’t strange, it’s awesome.

And then, I remember that it hasn’t always been this way.  Before the internet, none of these stories would have happened. None of the tens of millions of people who’ve been touched by them would have been reached.  Connecting to the world required the permission of a big company, like a record label, TV network, or movie studio.

And finally, I remember that it might not always be this way.  The “openness” of the internet — the ability for anyone to reach everyone, on equal terms — isn’t something we can take for granted.  It’s very much in contention.  It’s a battle — and one that we might not win, unless we get equal parts inspired, pissed, and organized.

Dropbox and personal data

More and more, recently, I’ve been noticing web services that use Dropbox for storing user data.  For example,1Password, OneName and Diaro.

With all the talk about user control of data, data liberation, privacy, etc — I actually feel like this is is a super nice approach, at least for some use cases.

I am more comfortable using Diaro as my journal because they don’t keep the data, I do (sort of — really Dropbox does, but it’s my dropbox acct and I can take it/delete it whenever I want).  I think that may have actually been my deciding factor in choosing Diaro.

In this particular case, using Dropbox has the added (I’d say necessary) feature of syncing across devices so any apps that store user data there can see it anywhere and not have to worry about managing it.

It’s also interesting to note that this wasn’t really the #1 use case (afaik) for Dropbox.  But it does seem to be a natural (albeit relatively fringe) additional use case.  And I wonder if we will see an increasing number of apps (maybe health?) take this route, and marketing it to privacy/control conscious users.

The sweetest pitbull

I had crazy week last week.

On Monday, I went to NYC for the day for work, and was overcome by a strange dizzy feeling.  Walls spinning; hard to concentrate; nauseous.  I thought — maybe I’m just dehydrated. I took a rest during the middle of the day; I drank a lot of fluids.  I made it back to Boston that evening — barely — and went straight to bed, assuming all would be clear the next morning.

When I woke up, the walls were still spinning, just as they had been.  I started googling.  Now — it’s important to note that I don’t have a standard health profile — 5 years ago, right after our son was born, I discovered that I had several large blood clots, in my intestines and in my head, and I’ve been seeing hematologists, neurologists, and rheumatologists, and have been on blood thinners, ever since.  As you can imagine, the intersection of “dizziness” and “blood clots” is not a good one.

So I headed straight to the ER Tuesday morning, and ended up being scanned, tested, and admitted overnight.  Turns out I did not have a stroke, but rather I have Vertigo caused by an enflamed cranial nerve (likely due to a virus of some kind).  Vertigo is a really strange thing: first, it’s amazing how much we take for granted our brain/body’s ability to understand and interact with the space around us; when that stops working, it’s very distressing.  And second, it’s (perhaps even more) amazing how well the brain can adjust, adapt, and re-learn, when certain things stop working the way they had been — I’ve been doing PT to re-train my brain, eyes and ears to understand what’s moving and what’s not moving, and where I am — and it’s been surprisingly effective.

But that’s not the point of this story.  The point of this story is about how much effort, charm, and determination it takes to get effective medical care — even in the best case scenario with excellent health insurance, great hospitals, and top doctors.

One of the toughest things about last week was getting all of the doctors on the same page with one another. I’ve got a PCP, a rheumatologist that I used to see in NYC, a history of cat scans and MRIs (from NYC and Boston), a hematologist in Boston — and now as of last week, a Neurology team in Boston following my case.

All of these doctors — each of whom knows a piece of my story and has expertise to offer — do not have a way to talk to each other, and their method of sharing information is outdated at best.

The result of this situation is a mad scramble.  Trying to get record requests initiated.  Trying to compare new images to old images.  Trying to get the specialists to weigh in with each other or at least communicate at all.  Trying to figure out where the PCP is.  Waiting on hold.  Leaving messages for doctors that don’t get returned.  Being scheduled for new cat scans and MRIs that may or may not be necessary — if only all of the doctors could communicate with one another, and work off of the same set of information.

For instance, the day after I was discharged from the hospital — and we headed to Cape Cod for what remained of our attempted family vacation — the Neurologist in Boston called and said they noticed something new on the cat scan from two days prior — and I needed to come back in for another scan.  That meant a 4 hour drive, finding someone to watch the kids (luckily both sets of grandparents were with us), another night away, and another day worrying about what could be.  And it’s altogether likely that better communication among doctors — and easier use of past records — would have made this unnecessary.

Luckily for me, I have a secret weapon.  My wife.  When it comes to medical issues, she has been through a lot — in particular, a decade of dealing with Chron’s disease and Thyroid Cancer.  She has learned — the hard way — what it takes to get through the confusion, uncertainty, bureaucracy, under-communication and fear of having a complex medical situation.  She know that you not only need to get connected with the right care at the right time, but you have to be a quarterback, pitbull, and snake-charmer at the same time to get things to happen.

In her words, you need to be the sweetest pitbull.

Never ever go away or let anyone off the hook, while at the same time, get everyone to like you and care about you.

My attitude is a bit different — I try to avoid being a burden, and tend to assume that people will do their jobs correctly if you let them.  I leave messages.

Frannie’s approach is different.  On Thursday when we went back for my additional cat scan, we showed up in person at the Hematology unit and the Neuro unit — unannounced; no appointment.  We tried to make friends with the receptionist (critical).  For a moment, it seemed like she would brush us off, but then she said “well, let me call the head nurse and see if she can come talk to you.”  Bingo.

The head nurse (an angel if there ever was one) came out and saw us.  Carved out a few minutes to talk.  Mid-sentence, as I was explaining my situation, she ducked out of the room and came back with record requests forms for NYC.  With her other hand, she dialed in the scheduler for the next possible appointment and got me set up. With her other hand, she took down the Neurologist’s information so she could coordinate with him. With her other hand, she had NYPH records department on the phone.  With her other hand, she scribbled down her direct line, her pager number, and the Hematologists cell phone number.  She had a lot of hands and she was using them all at once.  Because we were sitting there.

When we were done I gave her a huge hug and actually cried a little.  The difference between having a person who knows you, sees you, and can move the gears of medicine for you — and a person at the end of a phone line or email — is astounding.

And I would never have gotten there were it not for the sweetest pitbull gnawing and smiling our way in.

I guess the point of this story is that it shows me how broken the medical system is.  Even in the best case, there is such a lack of communication, coordination and information sharing.  Data is everywhere and nowhere.  Decisions are slower and harder to make than they should be.  Expensive diagnostics are over-used.  Every patient needs their own sweet pitbull to help pry the doors open and get the system to pay attention them and care about them.

Thinking about this in terms of apps and data — it showed me, crystal clear, that there’s got to be a better way to do medical collaboration.  What I wanted, throughout all of this, was a simple private chat room for me and my doctors — all of them — that provided easy access to my history of records, diagnostics, and care providers, across locations and hospital networks.  A place that let me  — and them — ask questions and get answers, and keep everything in one place that everyone could work from.    Of course, there are untold barriers to this vision: insurance, risk/liability, data security.  But it seems obvious to me that that’s the future we should be shooting for.

In the meantime, we can simply hope to recruit the sweetest pitbulls to have our backs. I know I am super thankful to have mine.

The open internet and the freedom to innovate

I spent the last two days in meetings with FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and his staff, discussing their proposed Open Internet rules (aka net neutrality).  Monday’s meeting was with a group of NYC VCs, and Tuesday’s meeting was with group of NYC startup CEOs and GCs.

Coming out of these meetings, and after working on this over the past several months, a few things have become increasingly clear.  Specifically, what we mean when we talk about the “freedom to innovate” and why it’s important for the future of the internet (both infrastructure and applications).

The question that the Chairman opened both meetings with was: how can the FCC achieve the dual goals of “access” and “flexibility”.  ”Access” meaning the ability for websites, startups, apps and content providers to reach end-users (and vice versa), and “flexibility” meaning the ability for internet access providers to expand and improve their networks in new (and potentially unexpected) ways.

Access: innovation without permission (on the network)

Yesterday’s startup meeting led off with each company[1] talking about why the open (non-discriminatory, non-prioritized) internet mattered to them — in particular, why it mattered to them when they were just starting out.

Eli Pariser from Upworthy put it perfectly, when he said: “I’m here because I’ve thought a lot about the tests you have to go through as a startup CEO. And I’m very thankful that one of the tests I *didn’t* have to pass was the Knows How To Negotiate A Complex Deal With A Large Telecommunications Conglomerate Test. I’m not sure many of us could have passed that test in the early days of our companies.” Amen.

Many companies noted how long they had operated before they need to hire a biz dev person or an in-house counsel.  David Karp from Tumblr noted that their GC was hire #37 (this was considered early) and they didn’t hire a biz dev person until the company was 7-1/2 years old.  Chad Dickerson from Etsy noted that their first GC was hire #500.  Erik Martin, GM of reddit noted that they he is their policy person (out of a staff of about 50).  Every company in room was able to reach and serve millions of users and customers without having to negotiate a pay-to-play deal with a carrier first.

The buzzword idea is “innovation without permission” — the ability to launch an app, try out an idea, start writing, start competing with the big boys, start gaining real users, just by hitting enter.  Anyone — a 16-year-old kid with an app or a 75 year-old grandmother with a blog — can simply start.   No need to hire a lawyer, negotiate a deal for access, or (in the worst case) file and litigate a complaint with the FCC.

Then, as David Pakman put it in the VC meeting, “the users can king-make the apps” (as opposed to the carriers charging, and picking, winners).

This is what brought us the internet we have today, and this is the world I want to live in.

Flexibility: freedom to innovate (in the network)

Regardless of whether we want ISPs to “innovate” in the first place, a central and critical question in the open internet debate is how to stimulate ongoing investment in our internet infrastructure.  To make internet faster, cheaper, and better for everyone.

This is the contentious issue.  Some argue that open internet rules would remove incentives for investment in infrastructure, by limiting the ways internet access providers are allowed to charge.

In the VC’s meeting on Monday, my colleague Brad said the following (as published in the forthcoming FCC ex parte filing — emphasis mine):

Mr. Burnham pointed out that the relationship between innovation in the network and innovation on the network is more nuanced than often assumed. For example, integrating the network more closely with applications by making the network application-aware may be advantageous from a business perspective, because it allows access providers to control the economics and the innovation at the application layer. Mr. Burnham recalled that when he worked at AT&T, at a time when that company introduced several application aware network architectures in an effort to compete with Internet, the network engineers there were so worried that changes in the network would break applications, that innovation in the network was very rare. At the same time, investment and innovation in and on the Internet was growing exponentially because the Internet’s layered architecture separated the applications from the network and allowed each to evolve independently. He argued that regulatory policy that continues to separate the network and applications layers by requiring ISPs to manage their networks in ways that are application agnostic will promote innovation not limit it.”

In other words, separating the applications layer from the network layer actually stimulates investment in both, by giving both the freedom to innovate.

The Virtuous Cycle

This brings us to a central idea:the “Virtuous Cycle” of innovation and investment:

This theory of innovation and investment — in both the applications layer and the network layer — is the core idea behind the FCC’s 2010 open internet rules.  And, contrary to what many critics argue, this rationale was not overturned in the recent court case vacating the rules.  Rather, the court simply ruled that the FCC could not enforce those rules without reclassifying ISPs as “telecommunications services” under Title II.  From the court’s decision:

“Internet openness, it reasoned, spurs investment and development by edge providers, which leads to increased end-user demand for broadband access, which leads to increased investment in broadband network infrastructure and technologies, which in turn leads to further innovation and development by edge providers.” (link)

“[The FCC’s] justification for the specific rules at issue here—that they will preserve and facilitate the “virtuous circle” of innovation that has driven the explosive growth of the Internet—is reasonable and supported by substantial evidence. ” (link)

So that’s where I’m at right now.  I believe in the power of innovation without permission.  And I believe that we need to stimulate expansive and ongoing investment in our internet infrastructure.  And I think the best way to do that is to align everyone’s incentives and give everyone the freedom to innovate.

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[1] Companies attending the 7/15/14 meeting: BuzzFeed, Codecademy, Dwolla, Etsy, Foursquare, GeneralAssembly, Gilt, Kickstarter, Meetup, Reddit, Spotify, Tumblr, Upworthy, USV, VHX, Vimeo, Warby Parker