Banny Banerjee’s Fishhook Idea at TEDxStanford

Yesterday I had the honor of helping organize and then attending TEDxStanford, a local and independent version of the TED conference designed to give a stage to ideas that can change the world. Out of a fantastic array of speakers and performers that rivaled any TED conference, one talk in particular has set its hooks into my mind. It is a simple idea with tremendous consequence.

Banny Banerjee, the director of the Stanford Design Program, described how we often frame the most important questions of our time as opposing alternatives: Either we follow our passion, or we get a well-paying job. Either we enable economic progress, or we save our biosphere. Either we have national security, or we stay out of war. The way we frame the questions ensures that we can never have both: It is a zero-sum, win-lose scale. In this polarized one-dimensional world, we leave no space for innovation.

Banny Banerjee's win-lose framing

What if our framing of the important questions of life is fundamentally flawed? Following your passion is not opposed to getting a well-paying job. It is in a different frame of reference. Following your passion is opposed to not following your passion. Getting a well-paying job is opposed to getting a low-paying job. If we recognize that these two dimensions are orthogonal, we can see the world in a completely new light. Rather than the one-dimensional polarization of everything, the challenges of our time are full of wide-open multidimensional spaces waiting to be filled with creative new ideas.

Banny Banerjee's reframing to inspire innovation

The space up and to the right where both following your passion and getting a well-paying job are possible is the space for creative thought. The space up and to the right where economic progress and preserving the biosphere are both possible is a where we can be inspired to invent new possibilities, to experiment and to innovate.

Banny described compelling questions to fishhooks that get lodged in your brain and continue to tug at your thoughts. The idea of reshaping the landscape in which we think about the challenges around us is one of those fishhooks – whether those challenges are in our own lives and communities, or facing our planet as a whole. Where is the innovation space? How we frame the question opens up entirely new possibilities. Thank you, Banny Banerjee, for sharing an idea worth spreading.

Can Personal Lifestreams Provide Data for Public Good: My Talk from SXSW 2012

Here is the presentation I gave at SXSW Interactive on March 12, 2012 in Austin Texas. My talk was the warmup for Shawn Achor’s more extensive talk.

The description from the SXSW website is as follows:

We move through our days with our smartphone apps in hand and mind, noticing and tracking our ideas and experiences into personal lifestreams of information. Can the data we’re recording about our daily progress be used for the greater public good? This conversation will explore the potential for integrating information from individuals’ mobile apps into aggregated data sets in areas as diverse as cultural trends, medicine and environmental science.

Why Donate to Wikipedia

If you have visited Wikipedia lately, you probably have seen the appeal from Jimmy Wales to donate money. Wikipedia is the fifth largest Internet site in the world, and the only top site operating as a nonprofit. Which means they need to raise money.

Until now, I have ignored Jimmy’s pleas, taking for granted my frequent access to Wikipedia. But this Thanksgiving weekend, as I was cleaning out my home office and attempting to cull my book collection to make some room on the shelves, I realized something that convinced me to make a donation.

The Great GatsbyIf you have ever tried to get rid of some of your old books, you know how hard it can be to pull the trigger.

Some books, like my copy of The Great Gatsby, one of the great novels of the 20th century, are clearly keepers even though it cost just $1.00 at the used book store back when it had an intact cover.

Others books are wrenching decisions. How can I possibly toss out the TED Book Club selection from 2009? I still haven’t read it!

Some books, on the other hand, are easy decisions, headed for the recycle bin because even the library won’t take them. I found a whole shelf of books that I haven’t touched in years. Technology books, software books, reference books.

Information storage, not stories.

I realized that one of the biggest reasons I haven’t touched these reference books in a while, and certainly haven’t bought a new one in years, is Wikipedia.

The information in Wikipedia is fresher, well-written for the most part, and far more extensive than the best reference library. So why buy books that are just information stores when Wikipedia has so much more to offer?

The footnotes on Wikipedia are one of the best parts of the service. With every article on Wikipedia you are one click away from the best bibliography on the web for any topic.

Crazy as it sounds, my kids tell me that their teachers don’t allow them to cite Wikipedia in their research papers, even though it is the first place the go for any new project. Even so, Wikipedia is an invaluable research tool for students because they can go to the footnotes and find original sources that no one argues with.

To my surprise, my kids also had contributed to Wikipedia. What might a grade school kid add to the greatest encyclopedia on the planet? Adding information about the latest MMORPG? In fact, they had corrected and added to some of the topics being taught in their classroom.

Captain NovolinI learned first hand the rigor of the Wikipedia contribution process.

A curator aptly named the “Red Pen of Doom” had reversed most of my own additions, self-serving edits aimed at revising and correcting the history of one of my early educational video games. Why the rejection? Insufficient references.

Wikipedia’s gift to education is far more than its reference value. It is the notion of radical participation.

Kids today grow up knowing that they can be active participants in the generation and curation of knowledge. The idea that knowledge is collaborative is quite different than my experience growing up with the old Encyclopedia Brittanica. The old encyclopedias engendered the feeling that knowledge only could be generated by inaccessible experts, and never was subject to question.

Windows VistaThe reason I’m giving $100 to Wikipedia this Thanksgiving weekend is not just because I’m thankful to Jimmy Wales in persevering with this project, which has been such a gift to the human race.

It’s also economic.

When I look at my old stale reference books that not even the public library will take off my hands, I realized that I have saved hundreds of dollars over the past few years by no longer buying quickly dated references.

Just knowing that Wikipedia exists, that everything is there, including all the references, I save money — and trees.

Wikipedia has got to be the greatest bargain of the decade. So this Thanksgiving I thought I would give a little of that back.

Keep it up, Jimmy Wales. The world needs Wikipedia to thrive!

Compass by – The biggest location checkin app on Android, still under the radar

Just behind Twitter and ahead Foursquare, Compass by is one of the most widely installed and highly rated apps on Android. Until now it’s been under the radar.

The point of Compass is to help you find your way. Yes, it starts with a variety of actual compass designs to choose from that point North with as much accuracy as your phone’s magnetometer will allow.

The real power of Compass, however, is to make it easy to save and retrieve places that are important to you together with your geo-tagged notes.

Compass was developed by, and it integrates seamlessly with the Catch Notes application on Android to enable you to attach notes to locations. When you take a note from Compass, the note is automatically populated with your current address and other data gathered from the phone’s sensors.

After you attach a note to a location, you can also add photos and soon a voice note.

Use Compass to annotate your world. Then when you want to find your way back to your important places and recall what you were thinking at the time, Compass points you toward them.

Compass ranks in the top 25 apps on Android, out of over 100,000 apps in the market. As of today, Compass has been downloaded over 8 million times, and is installed on nearly 5 million Android phones according to the Developer Console where Google reports Android Market data to developers. Most Android developers keep this data a secret, but we decided to let you in on how we track installs and usage of our app.

But just being installed on a phone doesn’t mean that people actually use it. That’s why we use Google Analytics Mobile to understand how many people actually use Compass and which features get used the most. Google Analytics shows aggregate usage data that cannot be linked with users. We use this summary data to help understand and prioritize our development tasks.

In December 2010, Compass had 1,762,328 Absolute Unique Visitors according to Google Analytics Mobile. This makes Compass one of the biggest location checkin apps in the world. Despite the many Compass users, the app has been under the radar because Compass helps you track your private places and notes, and there is no push to share your location or geo-tagged content as there is in most other checkin apps. No one can see your checkins and notes unless you decide to share them.

If you use Compass and you have any thoughts and ideas for the product, or if you would like to share a story about how you use it on your Android phone, please leave a comment. If you don’t have Compass, why not give it a try?

What is a hashtag?

If you are one of the 8% of online Americans who used Twitter in 2010, you probably understand hashtags as a convenient way of tagging and organizing ideas simply by sticking a number sign in front of any word. In Twitter, hash tags automatically become links to the entire stream of Tweets that share the same #hashtag.

But for the 92% of online Americans who did not use Twitter last year, including some of my friends and family who asked me “What is a hash tag?” over the holidays, the answer might not be as obvious.

Hashtags emerged because Twitter only allowed posts comprised of 140 characters of free text without any obvious way to organize and categorize the content. The beautiful simplicity of Twitter fueled rapid and viral growth, and the Twitter community looked for ways to organize the flood of information within the 140 character constraint.

Hashtags became a fundamental organizing principle because you only needed to sacrifice one character of your 140 free text field, and putting a # in front of any word gained an easy way to associate information into relevant topical streams.

hashtag example from Catch Notes iPhone

Hashtag example from Catch Notes for iPhone

Catch Notes uses hashtags for the same reason: The notes field starts as a simple free text entry field, without the need to add special titles and categories. The first line of each note automatically is considered the title. Any word with a hash sign in front of it automatically becomes a category and tag for organizing and associating your notes.

I use hashtags in Catch to create interlinked streams of related information about topics ranging from restaurants to recipes, from ideas to expense reports, and just about anything else that I might want to remember and come back to later.

Whenever I find a restaurant I want to go back to, I take a quick geo-tagged photo note using Catch Notes on my iPhone, and I drop a # in front of the word restaurant. Now the note is in my #restaurant stream. Once you have created a few hashtags, the most frequently used hashtags automatically pop up in the hashtag picker when you click the # symbol on the screen.

I also might sprinkle in hashtags like #local or #roadtrip to indicate other associations with a particular restaurant note. Maybe the chef came to the table and told us how he made a dish, and I add a note with the #recipe, automatically linked to all of the other recipes that I have collected or clipped from the web. Or maybe the #restaurant note also contains a business #expense that should land in my expense report, or we talked about an #opportunity and I want to set a reminder to follow up.

Hashtag example from synced notes at

Hashtags in Catch appear as links in the sidebar, like categories. They also appear as links within the note itself, as hashtags. We designed Catch for people who don’t necessarily have an elaborately planned filing system, and and who want to keep their organizing principles fluid. The world around us keeps changing with new information, new topics, new ideas, and it is hard to define a fixed filing system.

The idea behind hashtags in Catch is to allow users to think freely and capture their ideas in the moment without fretting about how to organize them or which folders they should go in. Organization emerges with increased use of Catch, and it is easy to change simply by adding a # in the right places.

Goal Setting for 2011

As we enter the new year, here is a goal setting worksheet that a friend shared with me last year. I found it very helpful for 2010, so I thought I would share it here. This year, I think it will be even more effective because I am recording and monitoring my goals using Catch.

After setting up a free online notebook at, create an entry where you write down the following things.

1) Guiding Intention: Choose one word to describe an overarching intention for 2011.

2) Special Focus: What would you like to report in January 2012 about your progress and results with this focus and what you expect to achieve in the year?

3) Goals: Create at least one goal in each category. Where possible, make sure these are “SMART” goals – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-based.

  • Career/Financial – Can be both business and personal
  • Relationships – Usually has to do with family/friends
  • Well Being – Usually has to do with physical condition
  • Spiritual – Anything that deals with spiritual/intellectual growth
  • Personal – What are you going to do for yourself?
  • Wild Card – What doesn’t fit anywhere else?

4) Business Financial Reporting: Create a one-page spreadsheet with rows for key financial indicators and columns for each month and totals for the whole year. Each month, track your budget, forecast, and actuals on this spreadsheet and keep it handy. If you do this using Google Docs, you can create a secret link to the document and include it in your Catch Notes entry.

  • Revenue
  • Gross Margin
  • Profit Before Tax
  • Cash Flow
  • Cash
  • Net Worth/Equity

5) Key Performance Indicators: Write down what you will be tracking as your Key Performance Indicators this year. What are the metrics on your financial/company-performance dashboard that are leading indicators and help you predict your performance? These leading ndicators can be integrated with your one-page monthly financial tracking sheet.

Be sure to write down your goals and keep them someplace that you can easily reference. Catch is useful for this purpose because you will have the key information handy on your iPhone or Android phone and synchronized with your account online.

For the spreadsheet with your financial metrics and key performance indicators, take a screenshot and attach it to your Catch note as an image. That way, you always have a fixed picture of what you were thinking at the beginning of the year.

Another advantage of using Catch for your goals is that whenever you put a hash or number sign in front of a word in your notebook, that word automatically becomes a “hashtag”, which is both a tag or category for organizing your content and a link to all other notes with that hashtag.

I am using the hashtag #Goals so that whenever I make progress with my goals or want to record any related thoughts and ideas, I mark them with the same #Goals tag. Both my original goals for the year and the stream of events, ideas, and progress notes throughout the year always will be with me.

Health 2.0 Developer Challenge — Move Your App!

Great innovation starts with great problems, and there is no shortage of great problems in healthcare.

One of those problems is couch potatodom.

Earlier this year Jamie Oliver challenged us to help him create a movement to fight obesity. We responded by partnering with HopeLab to challenge mobile software developers: Can you build an Android app that burns calories?

We called the developer challenge “Move Your App!”

In Phase 1, Peter Ma was selected by a panel of judges for “Pickup Sports” among a very competitive field with some great finalists. Peter was invited to TED Oxford where he showed his app.

We then expanded the challenge with Health 2.0 to allow teams of developers who missed the first round to enter their ideas. The winner was just announced this week at Health 2.0.

When Anthony Lai and James Yang got an email about Move Your App from the Stanford Computer Science department, they responded by dropping the class project the were working on, and started building Happy Feet, location-based exercise tracker with built in incentives and social connections.

To download and try out Happy Feet, the Health 2.0 challenge winning app, click here.