The NYC Economic Development Corporation featured Control Group as an example of entrepreneurship and success in New York City. We are so proud to call NYC home and are grateful for all of the opportunities and experiences that this great city has provided us and our employees.
Last Friday, we invited over 20 members of the NYC tech community to our office, including developers, engineers, designers, entrepreneurs, and academics, to meet with a Senior Advisor from the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy to discuss the Presidential Innovation Fellows Program. It was a fruitful discussion about the Obama Administration’s efforts to bring the skills, agility, and creativity of the tech sector into specific government programs.
Officially, the Presidential Innovation Fellows (PIF) program pairs top innovators from the private sector, non-profits, and academia with top change-agents in government to collaborate during focused 6-12 month “tours of duty” to develop solutions that can save lives, save taxpayer money, and fuel job creation. Each team of innovators is supported by a broader community of interested citizens throughout the country. The program has the full backing of each agency participant’s administrator and the Office of the President. Stuff.Will.Get.Done.
While much of our discussion involved learning details about the program and hearing lessons learned from the first fellowship class, a great deal was spent on our guests from the tech community sharing their own ideas and insights. There was an energy of excitement in the room and it was amazing to witness their willingness to lend their highly-desired skills to public service, especially considering their value in the private sector.
In New York City, we’ve already seen the potential for public-hacker collaboration. After Hurricane Sandy hit, NY Tech Meetup and other leading members of the tech community organized and empowered volunteers to work with federal, state, and local agencies to help with relief efforts. Within hours of the storm’s passing, #nytechresponds was trending on Twitter and people were working on solutions. As a testament to the impact of theses efforts, Mayor Bloomberg recently announced the launch of Code Corps, a “national guard” for technologists to build digital tools in emergency situations.
If I have learned anything from working in tech throughout my career, it is that entrepreneurs and hackers thrive in uncertain environments. So it was not surprising to see the tech community react so quickly and resourcefully in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. New York City and Washington, DC took notice. I can only imagine the possibilities of these formalized programs.
We encourage members of the NYC community (developers, designers, entrepreneurs, engineers, academics, strategists) to apply to the Presidential Innovation Fellows program. It is a paid fellowship and there is some flexibility in terms of location. Applications are due on March 17. If you have any questions about the program, please reach out to me and I’ll connect you with our guest from the White House.
We’re really excited to partner with Titan to submit for NYC’s Reinvent Payphones competition, because it’s the perfect project to highlight how we think and work at Control Group. One of things we’re focusing on right now is developing strategies for our clients to enable them to capitalize on the coming congruence of the digital and the physical. But we’re not satisfied to simply strategize with them. We’re especially interested in working with them to digitally activate their spaces.
Digital activation of space means designing and deploying sensors, touch points, and interfaces within built environments to transform them into computing platforms, that is, large scale input/output systems. As such, these spaces can become aware of the actions, needs, and interests of the people using them, data about which can be used to design further iterations of the platform to make it yet more informative and useful – both for the consumer and the business.
We begin by looking for aspects of the existing infrastructure that are under- or unused in order to uncover their potential. That’s what we discovered in the payphones. While they still produce healthy revenue through ad sales, they also represent a large sunk cost that, from the perspective of functionality, are more or less ignored for being obsolete. We then work to design a digital platform that is modular, extensible, and scalable in order to activate that infrastructure, putting it squarely ahead of the technology curve.
Digital activation is only as good as its sustainability, though. It’s only of limited value if it simply becomes the sunk cost of the future. That’s why we deploy as many of our projects as we can using an open architecture, so that others can contribute to the platforms evolution by integrating the latest technology developments addressed to changing circumstances and expectations.
Brick and mortar retailers have an under-leveraged advantage over online retail– the ability to observe real shoppers making purchase decisions in their store. E-commerce site analytics have user traceability that gives online retailers the ability to watch their customers convert via their site interactions. Now brick and mortar retail is catching up by implementing real world customer tracking analytics with a sophistication of its own. As the shopper tracking space matures, cutting edge advancements are moving beyond the lens of a camera and in innovative new directions.
With the majority of Americans carrying smartphones these days, a few companies have keyed in on the fact that smartphones are constantly sending out signals looking for available wireless networks. These signals identified by a unique MAC address are anonymous (for the most part) and can be detected with simple wireless receivers. Software vendors like Euclid Elements and Nomi have built enterprise solutions around analyzing the number of MAC addresses in a store. One limitation is that raw MAC address data does not include location– so if there are 20 MAC addresses in a store, there is no way to determine where they are in the store or what products they are investigating. Cisco offers a solution in the Wireless Location Appliance. Through a concerted effort of routers and detectors, the appliance can locate a MAC address within 5 meters. While this may not be the appropriate level of granularity for a small retail store footprint, big box stores could use this data to adjust store layouts and merchandising opportunities.
The next level of shopper detection granularity is available with infra-red (IR) & visual camera systems– popularized by the rapid adoption of the Xbox Kinect. Primesense recently acquired Argentinian start-up Shopperception, which offers a full suite of tools and analytics that can leverage the added data an IR & light sensor can capture. More than a simple head count, the Shopperception system can create heat maps of a store to show where people dwell and move in-store. It also monitors product shelves and tracks which products shoppers touched, returned and purchased. With this advanced ability to track shoppers and how they interact with the retail environment, the commonplace e-commerce technique of A/B testing is now possible for brick and mortar stores. Did shoppers touch products at eye level first but eventually purchase items from lower shelves? Did an End Cap drive sales of the intended product or merely create a foot-traffic bottleneck? Now we can finally tell.
It seems that every week or so I wake up and scan my inbox from my phone to find an email that starts, “Announcing AWS…” and then read about something new from Amazon that is going to change the way we do our work. This morning that email was about AWS OpsWorks.
The service was only released a few hours ago, so I don’t have much direct experience with it (yet), but Jeff Barr and Werner Vogels do a great job of covering what it is, how it works, and where it fits for AWS customers. Briefly, it allows you to create stacks of applications, described with some Amazon mojo and Chef recipes. You can use this to create application environments with AWS components. It handles a lot of things for you such as making sure Elastic IPs and EBS volumes stick with the instances you launch and handles automated deployment from source code repositories like Git or SVN. All in all, pretty cool stuff.
I like Werner’s picture of where OpsWorks fits, I’ll steal it and post it here:
At Control Group, we try to deploy applications using tools as far to the left on this graph as possible. After all, our clients are paying for us to solve the hard problems, not recreate functionality that you can get off the shelf. When we get to something that requires a bit more finesse, we implement solutions on the “Do it yourself” side of the spectrum where we have a proven combination of tools (CloudFormation, Puppet, Python, Chef, etc), DevOps practices (test driven development, continuous integration, etc), and a talented team of DevOps engineers.
OpsWorks is a great addition to the AWS portfolio, and I can’t wait to use it. Amazon releases features early, before all the functionality is built out. That’s okay because they listen to their customers and implement features that people ask for. So if someone from AWS is reading, here’s the things I’d like to see in it in the future:
- Support for Elastic Load Balancing in addition to HAProxy based load balancing
- A clearer path to RDS integration (seems possible, but it’d be nice if OpsWorks could manage my RDS instances for me)
- VPC support
- Windows support
- Multi-region support
I’m sure those things are going to happen and in the meantime I know we will launch a few OpsWorks stacks. We’ve been using AWS since the beginning, and it’s amazing to see how far it’s come. AWS has transformed our practice and I can’t wait to see what they release next!
Last week I ran out of face cream. I didn’t want to wait 2 days for an Amazon Prime shipment and I also wanted to try something new, so I needed a quick and easy return process if necessary. I also don’t fully trust that the highly discounted products that are found online aren’t old and expired. And I truly enjoy the act of shopping and no thoughtfully designed interface can take that away from me!
Luckily I live in downtown NYC so there is no shortage of places to buy face cream between work and my apartment. But being the pro-shopper that I am, I also know that none of these stores provide any product information or real tools for me to figure out what new face cream is best for my skin type or, more importantly, what other people are saying about it. So Amazon never really left my purchasing process. Before I went to the store, I went to Amazon to sort by skin type and read reviews. And before I closed my laptop to head to the store, Amazon was already telling me what I might also enjoy.
Then I went to the store– a beautifully designed, vibrant store with lots of shiny products and opportunities to burn some money. But I bee-lined right for the face cream I already knew I wanted because of Amazon. Then I waited in line (argh!) and browsed all the stuff they have out in the queue to keep me occupied for the 7 minutes it took for me to reach the cashier.
Perhaps it’s because I work at CG and we constantly think about issues like this, but lately, my retail experiences have been frustrating. There’s just so much opportunity to make the in-store experience better. And better doesn’t mean digital signage that displays pretty pictures that tell me nothing helpful or specific to my needs. Better for me means not having to make my retail purchase a two part process— online research + in-store purchase. Better for retailers means exploiting the opportunity to tell me what else “I may enjoy” based on my search or purchase history. Those products that lined the cash register line had nothing to do with what I was there to buy. So I didn’t buy any of it. But if there was a tool in the store that helped me pick my face cream and then told me that there was a complementary face wash that made the cream work better, I would have bought it in a second… well, after reading the reviews first, of course.
We’re used to personalization and being able to access product information (and get cross-sold) online, so why not offline? The ability to do so exists! While pretty digital signage looks great, it has never once compelled me to buy something. At this point, most retailers have integrated some sort of digital technology into their physical stores by now—whether it’s a static screen or an interactive iPad. But the way those technologies are used typically result in missed opportunities, or worse, points of frustration. Retailers should use technology and spatial real estate to provide a utility for shoppers, much like the online and mobile experience provides. Combine that with the unique design, energy, and style of a physical store, and retailers may be able to take their competitors, like Amazon, out of their customers’ purchase process.