Archive for November, 2010

I found this demonstration of an emerging robotics technology that promises to bring assisted walking to the wheelchair bound.  It’s an inspiring glimpse of an interdisciplinary engineering effort that provides an exoskeleton to support rehabilitation efforts of parapaligics . The technology was featured in this techcrunch fundraising campaign for the pending clinical trials. The technology is an adaptation of the HAL exoskeleton used by military forces to help them carry heavy loads (around 200 pounds) for extended periods of time. For someone who’s had a family member stuck in a wheelchair for an extended period of time, this is very encouraging for our future, particularly as the average age of the global population continues to increase and life expectancy increases in many nations.

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To be honest, I wasn’t very satisfied with the way class my programming class went today. I’m understanding the material fairly well, but I felt like a lot of the students weren’t connecting with it.  I think part of that is because they’re still trying to catch up on some of the earlier fundamentals in the course.  The other part is I feel I was lecturing too much, and that I should have had them do more hands on activities today, but that would have been challenging too, given that a chunk of students are still trying to catch up on the basic concepts I just mentioned.

Today we reviewed some of the questions from last Monday’s exam, particularly those dealing with subroutines, bundles of computer code that can be reused by given them different inputs (for example add these three numbers, where the three numbers input into the program can change each time you run it. We looked at ways you can use a return keyword to take the results of these small programs and store them in containers of different types (i.e. simple variables like strings of characters, or more complicated variables like lists of items).  We talked about how we can use our understanding of lists to process the inputs to these basic subroutine programs (i.e., by assigning list items to their own containers (variables) based on their position or by using foreach loops to perform activities like mathematical calculations on all of the inputs regardless of how many there are or in what order they’re input.  We can also use these basic subroutines to print output onto the user’s screen.

We also discussed the idea of global vs. local containers (i.e., variables that can be accessed across multiple subroutine programs or vs. only accessible within a specific subroutine) and how using the keyword my can be useful here.  I also explained how the Perl programming language handles global vs. local variables in different ways than more “modern” programming languages.


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I just had one of our Cambodian students stop by my office to share some green mung bean pudding that his mom made.  It’s delicious! I love the incredible students’ diversity at BYU Hawaii and their willingness to share their cultures, time, and talents with us faculty members.

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As a follow-on to last night’s work with social network application development,  today’s sections of my MIS class were devoted to walking the class through the systems development process for social network applications.  We talked about the textbook case from Experiencing MIS (2nd Ed.) to identify the case company’s business needs.  Then we investigated key terms around viral marketing and viral hooks. After introducing the concept of viral distribution, I asked the class to generate a list of things that make something (like a YouTube video) potentially viral.  Concepts like funny, scary, emotional, unique, easy-to-share, educational, and politically charged came up.

We then spent some time looking at examples online of viral marketing campaigns including the Old Spice “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” and its derivatives, Burger King’s Subservient Chicken, Starburst’s Berries and Cream ad, the Embrace Life seat belt PSA as well as wing suit base jumpers.  After comparing and contrasting these, we talked about how good viral efforts need to do more than just “create buzz.” They also need to be able to support the organizations strategic goals (e.g., did Old Spice actually make money?).

To help students understand what social networking applications are for, we looked into the Facebook Application Directory and looked at friend quizzes, Trip Advisor’s map sharing application, and a variety of Facebook games including Farmville, Frontierville, and Social City.  I talked about the business model for these types of applications and discussed some of the ideas in my two previous posts.  Afterward, I assigned the students to take 5-10 minutes to browse applications on Facebook to get ideas for how MRV (the textbook case company) might use the functionality available through social networking platforms and to list some possible applications that could be inspirational for an MRV, “Let’s go rafting” application.

As I went around the classroom, I joked it was difficult to tell whether the students were on task or simply playing games and watching videos.  We got some useful examples and the exercise led to an interesting (but too short) discussion about different options for such an application. Across both sections some of the ideas included, using a Facebook Page instead of an application to focus on community development among existing and potential customers, using a rafting game to generate experience points that can be converted to discounts or promotional items, using an application as a travelogue tool to track where people have been and to share photos, videos, and narratives of the experience, and creating an application to identify interest in potential rafting sites and to plan future expeditions.

Overall, I think today’s exercise was worthwhile. I wanted my students to understand how fuzzy and complicated systems definition and requirements analysis can be. My biggest challenge today, I think, was estimating how much time everything was going to take. We could easily spend a full week on an exercise like this.  So today’s activity didn’t feel completed, but we have to move on next week.  Hopefully over time, I’ll get a better feeling for how much can be accomplished in a single class period.

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During my investigations tonight on Facebook games and applications, I came across a humanitarian effort by Zynga, the maker of some of the most popular and highest revenue generating Facebook games available today. Zynga’s business model, as I understand it is built on freemium principles.  Players can participate in the game for free, but making significant progress in the game will either require an enormous investment in time or players can purchase premium points or items to accelerate their progress or customize their game experience in a way that is worth sharing with their friends. Thus, Zynga makes money by encouraging its users to give out collectively large sums of money in very small increments.

Zynga.org features a story of how this payment processing, social gaming platform is being used to raise money to build / fund schools and other recovery efforts following Haiti’s January 2010 earthquake.  In an explanatory video, a Zynga employee boasts that Zynga was the first private company to donate over 1 million dollars to the Haiti relief effort. This money was raised by inviting game players to purchase limited edition, premium in-game products 100% of the proceeds for which would be directed towards efforts in Haiti.  The approach is similar to the breast cancer fundraising efforts that visibly occur in retail stores annually in the US.  Vendors market special “pink ribbon” editions of their products and consumers buy them with the expectation that some of the revenues from those products will fund breast cancer research.  What I think is interesting about Zynga’s efforts is that 1) many if not most of these donations appear to be very small, yet they add up very quickly; 2) players get to advertise their charitable contributions through the same channel that they broadcast their  game progress in; 3) the effort required to make a donation has been brought to almost zero by incorporating the fundraising into an existing payment platform.


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This semester, I am teaching a course that introduces information systems concepts to business students. We’ve been talking this week about systems development, the processes through which information systems are designed, implemented, and maintained within an organization.  The textbook we’re using presents an interesting group activity that I thought would be a good class exercise, so I announced on Monday that this would be our focus for Wednesday’s class. In short, it basically asks the students to apply the concepts they’re learning to develop a Facebook application for a river rafting tour guide company described in the textbook.

In reviewing the assignment yesterday, I realized I needed to learn more about Facebook applications if I was going to be able to effectively guide my students during Wednesday’s class. I’ve only tested a handful of applications, and these have largely been the one-time-use variety like friend wheel.  I felt I needed some better exposure if we were going to be discussing the topic in class.  So after putting the kids to bed, I hopped onto Facebook and started exploring. I started adding applications and games to my Facebook account.  Now, if nothing else, I’ve grown somewhat proficient at building houses (Social City), harvesting crops (Farmville), learning to read fake old English “knight speak” (knights of camelot) and chopping down trees on the frontier (Frontierville).  I’ve also learned that a number of my friends have travelled much more extensively than I have (TripAdvisor).

In each of these applications, I see developers putting in a lot of thought as to how to either keep the player on the screen or to motivate them to come back repeatedly. Setting timers that constrain / limit users progress within the application and penalizing users for inactivity (i.e., your plants wilt in Farmville if not tended to daily).  I’ve noticed some apps focus  a lot on sharing your progress with your friends, prompting users to post updates about their game to their profile at least once per session.  This latter point can serve as a good discussion in class about being viral vs. being spammy. I was also somewhat frustrated by the degree of similarity across many of the games.  The “gameboards” for many games  / apps looks very similar.  There seems to be no end to the thematizations we can put on “Sim City” like applications which allow us to maximize the utility of different segments of our gameboard.  In planning a “Let’s go rafting” app in class tomorrow, I’m wondering whether the students will follow the examples of the game apps or the travel apps, and how much creativity they’re willing to “risk”.  I’ll post my results here tomorrow (Wednesday).

My experience tonight has given me some more to think about in terms of what is it that makes an application “social.” Much like e-business applications often succeed better when we don’t simply try to automate / webify an existing process without accounting for the unique characteristics afforded by web technologies. I think the same argument could be applied with developers of “social networking applications.” Developers should have a compelling reason to design something “social” and not just because Facebook is simply another distribution channel”

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I just received an email that a paper I’ve been coauthoring has been accepted at Information Systems Research. “Trust is in the Eye of the Beholder: A Vignette Study of Post-Event Behavioral Controls on Individual Trust in Virtual Teams” reports the results of a study that began during my introductory seminar for the PhD program at Indiana University in 2004.   It’s wonderful to finally see the nearing culmination of years of work. I’m grateful for dedicated coauthors who have labored so diligently to bring this work to light.

In brief layman’s terms, the message of the paper is as follows: Virtual teams is the term we use for describing teams whose members interact primarily using technologies instead of in face-to-face settings.  With such teams, a managerial concern has been that it is difficult to control such groups, and that when controls are put in place, it tends to undermine trust among the team members. In our study, we conducted an experiment testing whether behavioral controls (requiring group members to report on the performance of their team members) and the presence of reneging behaviors (people failing to following through with their commitments) affect trust in these virtual teams. What we found was that these controls actually lead group members to notice both positive and negative behaviors and enhance what is called the “selective perception bias.” Basically it helps people find what they were predisposed to look for. If people tend to be distrustful, behavioral controls in virtual teams increased that tendency. If they tend to be trusting of others, behavioral controls increased that tendency as well.

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