Marketplace - American Public Media

Outside groups launch ground game in Iowa

Tue, 2014-10-28 02:00

Since the Supreme Court's "Citizens United" decision in 2010, there’s been more and more participation in electoral politics by groups not coordinated with campaigns or parties. In Iowa, what’s unusual this year is — in addition to a blizzard of TV ads — outside groups are out knocking on doors. 

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, roughly $50 Million dollars of outside money has been spent on Iowa’s close open Senate race. A fraction of that money was spent to put Denise Bubeck on this Des Moines voter’s doorstep.

“I’m letting people know the policies of Bruce Braley that we don’t agree with. You know, the healthcare law,” Denise Bubeck says to a voter on his doorstep.

Bubeck won’t tell you who to vote for, but it’s evident she’s not a fan of the Democrat in the race: Four-term Congressman Bruce Braley.

“The bailouts, the stimulus package, the spending. And so we’ve been encouraging people to vote,” says Bubeck. 

“Oh, I hear ya. I’m on the same page,” the voter responds.

Bubeck never mentions Iowa state senator Joni Ernst, the Republican in the race. That’s because Bubeck is a paid staffer with Americans for Prosperity. It’s a social welfare organization that’s limited in how it can engage in electoral politics. It also doesn’t have to reveal its donors. AFP was started by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, a conservative group often demonized by Democrats.

“It’s a lot easier to raise some money and throw some ads on TV,” says Drew Klein, the deputy director of AFP’s Iowa chapter. He says knocking doors is a more effective way to connect with voters.

“Looking back at 2008 and 2012, that’s really where the left dominated both the size of the presence and the effectiveness of their presence,” Klein says. “I think it has been kind of a learning curve for us.”

Both liberal and conservative groups are pounding Iowa pavement. The increasing participation by outside groups has become an issue in itself in this race that could determine what party holds the majority in the senate. That’s a problem, says Drake Political Science Professor Dennis Goldford. 

“So the campaigns become not about issues that matter to voters,” Goldford says. “The campaigns become campaigns about campaigns themselves.”

Goldford says outside money is nothing new in Iowa; it’s just the unprecedented volume and intensity in this midterm. He says with all this outside money sloshing around, Iowans shouldn’t be surprised if it sticks around long after November 4th.  After all, once the polls of the midterm close, it’s 2016 Iowa caucus season.

 

How the NBA TV deal is already having an effect

Tue, 2014-10-28 02:00

The NBA season starts Tuesday night with a lot of hope toward the future. Earlier this month, the basketball league announced a $24 billion deal to allow TV networks to carry its games, nearly tripling the league's broadcast revenues compared to its previous deal.

But the trickle-down effect of the cash infusion started even before the deal — scheduled to start in 2016 and last until 2025 — was even signed. That’s because NBA watchers and insiders had been expecting a more lucrative TV contract, although best guesses had assumed a doubling of fees, not a near tripling.

Nevertheless, that anticipation of a cash infusion had already had an effect, says Victor Matheson, who specializes in sports economics at the College of the Holy Cross.

“Just a couple years ago, we thought that a team like the Clippers may be worth $500 million, maybe a billion. And all of a sudden the Clippers are selling for $2 billion,” Matheson says.

Valuations are forecast to go up for the other 29 teams as well. And players have also been factoring in the expected TV cash, too, says Raymond Sauer, who teaches sports economics at Clemson University.

"LeBron James signed a short-term contract, so he’s positioned to re-up, as it where, with the new revenue streams,” says Sauer.

And for those players who don’t have contract renewals coming up, the NBA and the players’ union are now looking into how to best spread the wealth. One of the options that may be considered is a combination of a raise of the current salary cap — set at 51 percent of revenues — and a payment to the union, which then would distribute money among players.

The NBA, by the numbers:

$24 billion

The deal the league struck to allow TV networks to carry its games, nearly tripling their broadcast revenues.

11.7 million

The number of followers for the NBA’s official Twitter handle. That’s the highest of the four major American sports leagues, by far. (NFL = 7.68 million, MLB = 3.93 million, NHL = 2.8 million.)

6

The number of NBA teams with at least one million followers on Twitter. The Los Angeles Lakers lead all teams with 4.02 million. The other five teams are the Miami Heat (2.78 million), the Chicago Bulls (1.76 million), the Boston Celtics (1.54 million), the Orlando Magic (1.2 million), and the New York Knicks (1.04 million).

3

The number of years the NBA has presented "Social Media Awards." The awards were slightly expanded in 2014 with more categories.

$2 billion

 The record-breaking price Steve Ballmer paid for the Los Angeles Clippers earlier this year.

29 teams

 Besides the Clippers who hope the league's coffers keep flowing.

Old old old MacDonald had a farm

Tue, 2014-10-28 02:00

Wave Williams, a 4th-generation farmer at Gardeners Gourmet in Westminster, Maryland, knows first-hand that getting into farming is difficult.

“A lot of the people that are farming are the sons, the daughters, the grandkids of the farmers,” Williams said as he sold vegetables at Washington DC’s Eastern Market. “Even if you want to start farming, it’s really hard because to get the land, it’s expensive. So the only people that are actually going to have the land are the people it got passed from the generations, like our family, for instance.”

At 26, Williams stands out in the agricultural industry. American farmers are older than they ever have been. In 2012, the average farmer was 58, compared to 50 in 1982, according to the Census of Agriculture. It’s a 30-year trend.

And while farmers are aging, fewer young people are entering the industry.

Creating an even farming field

The biggest obstacles beginning farmers face are access to capital and land, according to a 2011 survey by the National Young Farmers’ Coalition (NYFC).

It costs a couple million dollars to get the land, equipment, machines, seeds and more to start a small farm, according to David Fowler of Sunnyside Farm in Mechanicsville, Maryland, who’s been farming for 50 years.

“There’s no guaranteed retirement, there’s no guaranteed income,” he said. “What you make today is spent yesterday. You don’t have any money until you die because all your assets is tied up in your equipment and your land.”

This is why young people aren’t going into farming. “Besides that, they don’t like to work,” Fowler said. “Farming’s a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week job with no time off. And young people just are not going to do that anymore.”

That’s where organizations like the National FFA Organization (FFA) and NYFC come in.

FFA tries to eliminate obstacles that keep young people from entering agricultural fields by offering students Supervised Agricultural Experience grants, scholarships, proficiency awards, internships and other resources, according to Dwight Armstrong, CEO of the National FFA Organization and National FFA Foundation.

FFA offers mentorships and other opportunities for middle and high school students to learn agricultural methods. Armstrong encourages those in agricultural fields and older generations of farmers to get involved with FFA, 4-H or similar groups.

NYFC, founded in 2010, uses a different approach to encourage young people into farming. The group of young farmers, with 24 chapters in 22 states, pushes for policy shifts.

They’ve been talking to Representative Chris Gibson (R-NY) about introducing a bill that would add farmers to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which currently offers loan forgiveness for teachers, physicians, not-for-profit and government employees. Student loan debt makes it difficult for beginning farmers to get a mortgage, credit, land and equipment, according to Lindsey Shute, the Executive Director of NYFC.

“What we’re asking is the U.S. government put farming in the category of public service, which it really is,” Shute said. “There is a group of young people that want to farm. But to enable them to make a career of farming, there has to be structural change.”

Changes taking hold

FFA is seeing record-high membership with 610,000 members and 7,570 chapters across the country. And new chapters are starting in urban areas like Chicago, New York City and Philadelphia. Two-thirds of FFA members live in suburban or urban locations. Brian Walsh, 21, the president of FFA, believes the organization is effectively helping more young people get into agriculture.

Walsh said FFA is reaching members who might not be traditionally interested in agriculture because the industry is diversifying.

“Agriculture is interesting,” he said. “We see it all over the news, we see it everywhere. People want to know where their food comes from. It’s no longer just large conventional farming. There’s organic farming, there’s locally grown foods.”

There is constant innovation in the agricultural industry, Walsh said.

He’s witnessed this innovation and various pathways to agriculture while traveling across the country since 2013. In his travels, Walsh has seen ag-science programs and greenhouses at schools. He’s spreading the message to FFA chapters that agriculture needs young people to survive.

“Farmers are arguably one of the most important professions in the U.S.,” said Shute, who runs Hearty Roots Community Farm with her husband in Germantown, N.Y. “They’re taking soil, water, sunshine, seeds and turning that into value and feeding local people and creating very vibrant economies. So this issue of farmers aging is so vital to the future of our country.”

Fed set to end its bond buying

Tue, 2014-10-28 02:00

The Federal Open Market Committee could call it quits on QE3 after meetings Tuesday and Wednesday. The Fed has bought more than $4 trillion worth of Treasuries and Mortgage bonds in its extraordinary effort to stimulate the economy.

For six years, the Fed has used some form of the unconventional monetary policy known as quantitative easing. When that ends, the Fed still has its conventional tools.

“So the Fed still can influence short-term rates, thirty-day rates, overnight rates,” says Rutgers University’s Morris Davis, who was once an economist with the Federal Reserve Board. “It just has decided it will not try to influence longer term rates like the ten-year Treasury or mortgage-backed securities.”

But even if the Fed stops its bond buying program, it won’t stop buying bonds. Interest-rate strategist Ian Lyngen with CRT Capital Group says the Fed plans to replace all those securities it owns as they mature. He says the Fed wants to maintain the size of its balance sheet for now, with those trillions injected in the economy.

He describes the thinking like this:

“We’ve put that much more money into the system, and we’ve provided that much more stimulus. And as long as we’re not shrinking the size of our balance sheet, then we’re continuing to keep our foot on the pedal.”

We’re just not accelerating more.

Change to PLUS loan program hits HBCUs hard

Tue, 2014-10-28 02:00

Several U.S. colleges have seen declining enrollment since the recession began. But changes to a federal loan program in 2011 have hit some historically black colleges and universities especially hard.

Clark Atlanta sophomore Jasmine Johnson says waiting for a federal Parent PLUS loan to be approved can be stressful.

“My freshman year when I got here, I didn’t have enough money because my Parent PLUS hadn’t been approved yet. They didn’t let me move in my dorm, and I was like, ‘Where am I supposed to go?’” Johnson says. “’I have no family in Atlanta,’ and they just were like, ‘Well, you can’t move in.’”

The new PLUS loan requirements mean fewer HBCU students now qualify. In a two-year period, Clark Atlanta’s enrollment dropped about 13 percent.

“It’s not like they’re Ohio State, with over 100,000 students,” says University of Pennsylvania professor and HBCU expert Marybeth Gasman. “An institution like Prairie View, for example, in Prairie View, Texas, has about 8,000 students. If they lose 100, 200, 300 students, they’re going to feel an impact.”

Gasman says federal officials didn't warn schools about the changes. She says HBCUs really felt the squeeze because they serve a higher number of low-income students who need to apply for loans.

The changes initially caused a 6 percent enrollment drop at Howard University in Washington, D.C. The school lost about $17 million in revenue, resulting in Moody’s downgrading its credit rating.

Lenora Jackson is the director of financial aid at Atlanta’s Spelman College. She says the changes initially impacted about 200 of the school’s 2,000 students.

“Two hundred students not coming back does affect the bottom line of our budget,” Jackson says. “So, we had to come up with some very strategic ways of getting those students back in school.”

Jackson says Spelman was proactive. The school offered students scholarships to make up the gap and coached parents on how to seek an appeal.

Atlanta’s Morehouse College, on the other hand, had to cut $2.5 million from its budget. That meant laying off 50 employees.

Gasman says it’s not a crisis yet. Enrollment is up at some HBCUs. But, she says, if schools like Morehouse and Spelman can’t recover, the effects could be widespread.

“If we did not have these institutions, we would have a huge drop in the number of these students becoming doctors, becoming pharmacists, becoming scientists,” she says.

Federal officials have proposed changes to the PLUS loan. The new standards would relax some of the loan’s credit requirements starting in the fall of 2015. 

The $128 million dollar supercomputer

Tue, 2014-10-28 02:00

Cray, a Seattle based supercomputer company, just announced that they will be supplying the UK's Met Office, their version of the national weather service, with its next generation supercomputer worth over $128 million.

The machine itself looks like a bunch of refrigerators, known as racks, lined up next to one another.

Barry Boulding, Vice President of Business Development for Cray, says, "Weather forecasting today is more than just the morning news. It's really about providing a set of products to financial markets and the defense industry. What the Met Office just purchased will give them the ability to deliver 13 times more to their customers than they were able to deliver in their previous business."

Technology and the level of computing power continues to improve, and with it, the accuracy of forecasts. But along with more capability comes more complex questions. 

Click the media player above to hear Barry Boulding in conversation with Marketplace Tech host Ben Johnson.

Want the best price online? Good luck with that.

Mon, 2014-10-27 13:04

Here's some not-so-happy news as the holiday shopping season continues: The price you see online for a given item may not be the same as the price others see. The retailer may ask you for more money, or just show you an array of more-expensive products, depending on what kind of machine you’re using, or whether you're logged into their website, or your browser. That’s the bad news from a recent paper by researchers at Northeastern University.

The worse news is: It’s really, really hard to tell what conditions might get you the best price. 

Earlier reports had documented individual quirks: Staples might charge you a $1.50 more for a stapler depending on your ZIP code. The CEO of Orbitz once acknowledged steering Mac users to fancier hotels.

This study was more rigorous, and it found systematic differences in which users see what products, at what prices. The systems were tricky to detect and would be super-hard for consumers to game. 

"Initially, we assumed the best thing was just going to be ‘clear your cookies,’" says Christo Wilson, a computer science professor and one of the study's co-authors. "But it turns out to be much more nuanced than that."

For instance, clearing your cookies gets you slightly more-random results on Expedia. Android customers see higher-priced items when they search Home Depot, and sometimes the same items at a higher price. Travelocity seems to offer better deals to iPhone users.

That last part — different prices for different customers — is called price discrimination. Which sounds bad, but in general is actually really popular.

"This happens all the time in the real world," says Wilson.  "People get discounts, there’s coupons — people love it.  But it’s typically transparent."

You know when there’s an early-bird special, or a discount for using a loyalty card. The price is right there on the shelf, or in an ad, or on the menu.

"Online stores aren't like physical stores," says Internet policy consultant David Robinson. "It's not just one set of offers, and everybody sees the same store. When you're on the Internet, it could be a totally different store."

And how would you ever know? The Northeastern University researchers ran tests that no home user could ever replicate, and came back with only partial results. They recruited hundreds of people online to run an initial round of tests, then created fake accounts in order to isolate variables.  The initial tests showed that Sears sometimes offered the same item for different prices, but the "lab" tests couldn't isolate a variable that triggered a different price.  

This study didn't even test Amazon. With so many different merchants selling on that site, it would have been hard to differentiate offers by Amazon itself from offers by other retailers. 

"One of the problems with the capability of a company to personalize the terms on which is offers you services and the price is this information asymmetry. You don’t know when they’re doing it," says Ryan Calo, a University of Washington law professor who studies privacy rights.

If you’re determined to try to find better prices online, here are some tips.

Be warned: They are not for the instant-gratification-oriented. Effort is involved. So is patience.

 

Delia Ephron: "Nora always said we shared half a brain"

Mon, 2014-10-27 11:20

When the hilarious and typically New York-neurotic author Delia Ephron sat down with Marketplace, she had some numbers to share with us. 

  • Uber rating: 4.5. "I was in a car uptown and the driver told me, you have a 4.5. If it drops to a 4, no one will pick you up." The answer? "Tip $5 to get 5."
  • Blowdry rating: (undisclosed). Ephron admitted to 2 blowouts per week, at an untold cost, plus taxi fare to and from. "It's breaking me."
  • PageRank: "I Googled you [Kai]. The first thing that comes up is your salary."
  • Nervous rating: "I'm not the person you want sitting in the exit row on an airplane. I go from 0 to 100 faster than anyone you've ever met."

Marketplace's road show, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Numbers, wraps up in Los Angeles, Saturday, November 8. Buy tickets here

Caught the common cold? You have everyone to blame

Mon, 2014-10-27 11:00

While we're all freaking out about Ebola, here's yet another thing to worry about catching: If someone with a cold touches an office doorknob, within four hours that virus is found on the hands of half of the people who work in that office, according to a study by the American Society for Microbiology.

The most contaminated surface?

The common coffee pot.

The good news?

At least your coffee pot can't give you Ebola.

Why did Rite Aid and CVS block Apple Pay?

Mon, 2014-10-27 11:00

Need to pick up a prescription? How about some shampoo or Tic Tacs?

Last week, consumers with the newest iPhones could have used the Apple Pay system to make payments with their devices at their local Rite Aid and CVS.

But no more; those two chains have pulled the plug on Apple Pay, saying only that they’re still evaluating payment options for their customers.

The reversal was poorly executed and a bad idea for CVS and Rite Aid, says Deborah Baxley, a payments consultant with CapGemini.

“It’s already having an effect because the Twitterverse is exploding with disgruntled Apple Pay customers,” she explains. “So I think these merchants are effectively shooting themselves in the foot.”

But she says the impact will likely be more reputational, less bottom-line.

“[The stores are] saying, 'We control the terminal,'” says Mary Monahan, the head of mobile at Javelin Strategy & Research. “'We control the customer relationship and if you don’t listen to us, then we’re just not going to turn on these terminals.'”

Monahan expects Apple Pay to be successful in the next few years, but says the company will likely need to reach out to merchants.

“Apple Pay doesn’t offer loyalty [programs], doesn’t give the merchant anything to bring the customer back into the store,” she explains. “So Apple’s going to need to add that to really sweeten the pot for these merchants to turn on Apple Pay.”

“Given that we are still in the process of evaluating our mobile payment options, Rite Aid does not currently accept ApplePay,” spokeswoman Ashley Flower wrote in an emailed statement. “We are continually evaluating various forms of mobile payment technologies, and are committed to offering convenient, reliable and secure payment methods that meet the needs of our customers.”

CVS also said only that it’s still evaluating different mobile payment technologies.

But the stores are also part of the Merchant Customer Exchange, which is developing its own payment system called CurrentC. Many analysts believe these stores are blocking Apple Pay to wait for that launch in 2015.

“The best thing you can do if you’re waiting for your system to come online and be a competitor is to make sure that there’s as much hesitation on part of consumers to adopt that new standard as possible, to buy yourself time so that you can actually compete,” says Pai-Ling Yin, a researcher at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research.

She says while this was a bad move for Rite Aid and CVS, it might be the right move for CurrentC.

The Ebola fight's HR problem

Mon, 2014-10-27 11:00

The federal government and the states are still figuring out just what they should do with health workers who return from treating Ebola patients in West Africa.

And while that question is part logistics and part politics, there is a pretty big human resources question in there, too. How do groups like Doctors Without Borders recruit healthcare workers who are urgently needed to contain the outbreak? 

“From the beginning of the outbreak until now, it’s been difficult to find people who have the experience, the willingness and the flexibility. It’s not an easy ask,” says United Nations spokesperson Nyka Alexander.

The U.S. and Britain both plan to build Ebola treatment centers in West Africa. Countries and individuals like Paul Allen along with Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan and Bill and Melinda Gates are pledging millions in aid. And Cuba, China and Ethiopia are among the other nations who are sending teams to West Africa.

But still the World Health Organization says several hundred more foreign medical workers are needed. Guinea, with the highest proportion of doctors among the three affected West African nations, has just 10 physicians per 100,000 people, compared to 240 in the United States.

Everyone agrees the way to keep the American public safe is to beat this virus over there. But no one agrees who should travel across the Atlantic to fight it. Most healthcare workers in the U.S aren’t going. Some may worry about getting sick, or wonder whether they have the right skills or think they’ll be treated like a pariah when they come back.

Those like Johns Hopkins bioethicist Zackary Berger are sympathetic to the cause. But he questions how much value he would bring, compared to the risks involved.

“I have obligations to my patients. I have obligations to my family. I think I would do most good here,” Berger says.

Berger, who is also an epidemiologist, is more qualified than the average healthcare worker to volunteer. Intellectually he gets it; if not him, then whom?

Boston University’s Dr. Nahid Bhadelia understands convincing people to do something like this is tricky. Her approach is simple. She tells stories about her 12 days in Sierra Leone, including one about an old man who was so ill he could barely speak.

“I went back in to see if there was somebody to help me move him,” she recalls. “And the minute I walked into the ward, this mother walked up to me with her six month old and said, this baby is not feeling well can you help me. And by the time I was done taking care of the child, the old man was already dead."

Bhadelia believes these anecdotes wash away over-dramatized images of people with “blood pouring out of every orifice,” and instead capture the daunting reality on the front lines. More than the fear of contacting Ebola, which she experienced, Bhadelia remembers the feeling of helplessness.

When Bhadelia urges people to volunteer, which she does every chance she gets, she doesn’t talk about “boots on the ground.” Instead, she talks about hands – the lack of hands to help.

That message came through to Dr. Berger at Hopkins. After I mentioned the anecdote about the old man, Dr. Berger said, “it’s stories like that that make people shift how they see their obligations,” he says, suggesting that he might like to get in touch with Bhadelia.

Bhadelia says perhaps what health workers fear the most about volunteering in Guinea or Liberia is the unknown, whether they really could help stop the spread of Ebola.

She says when she goes around trying to recruit people to join the fight she reminds people that the survival rate is over 50 percent if you catch the virus in time.

You just need enough hands to do it.

The invisible labor that keeps Facebook clean

Mon, 2014-10-27 10:24

Social networking sites like Facebook and YouTube have a problem. In a way, it's a good one to have. 

The grandma problem.

As social networking has gone mainstream – in other words, "even Grandma is on Facebook" – the seedier side of the web becomes a bigger and bigger problem. Say Grandma logs in to check out new family photos or videos, and then she's bombarded with everything from violent car crashes to the most vile kinds of pornography? Not a good user retention strategy. 

Enter the content moderator. She makes sure the really icky stuff the Internet has to offer doesn't show up next to photos of the grand kids. She is part of a massive workforce, which one expert estimates at over 100,000 around the world. Or, 14 times the size of Facebook. 

Adrian Chen wrote about content moderators for the November issue of Wired. His reporting took him to the Philippines, where outsourcing firms pay content moderators as little as $300 per month. 

"What the companies told me was that people in the Philippines, because of the cultural connection to the U.S., were better-equipped to screen content for American and Western audiences," Chen said. 

But no content moderator is well-equipped for the volume of vile content that the screening process entails. 

"People get a darker view of humanity," Chen said, adding, "seeing all this abnormal stuff all day gives you a twisted view of what's really going on out there."

The full article, including accounts of some of the terrifying content that moderators see, is at Wired.com.

The numbers for October 27, 2014

Mon, 2014-10-27 09:43

With the euro-zone teetering on the edge of another recession, all but 25 of the continent's major banks passed stress tests conducted by the Central Bank. Thirteen of those must make up a 9.5 million euro shortfall.

Italy was the country that fared the worst, with nine of its banks failing the test. The Wall Street Journal picks up the country-by-country breakdown. Overall the report is meant to quell fears about the beleaguered European economy.

This week is heavy with tech earnings again. Twitter reports after the closing bell today and Facebook, tomorrow. In the mean time, here's what we're reading - and the numbers we're watching - Monday.

34

That's the number of retailers listed on Apple's website as supporting the company's mobile payment system, which launched a week ago. As the Verge points out, while main banks back the service, eight of the participating retailers are Foot Locker brands and one is Apple itself. Meanwhile, several big stores like CVS, Wal-Mart and Best Buy aren't supporting Apple Pay because they are part of a competing mobile payment system set to launch next year.

68 percent

The GOP's chances of taking over the senate in the upcoming midterm elections. The Washington Post reports that Democrats have scooped up quite a few newspaper endorsements, and while that might not be enough to hold the Senate, those nods can still have an impact on the results. 

$20/hour

That's how much fast food employees make in Denmark, nearly two and a half times what they make in the U.S., the New York Times reported. Some have pointed to the unionized Danish fast food workforce as an example for how American workers should be treated, while others say it's impossible to fairly compare the two countries. The Times cites one study that says half of all fast food workers are on some type of public assistance.

Quiz: Navigating the higher-ed tech landscape

Mon, 2014-10-27 05:10
Which of the following companies creates technology for online courses?

Read the Eduventures analysis of the higher education technology market here.

PODCAST: Saving leftover food

Mon, 2014-10-27 03:00

Pay for stuff by waving a mobile phone at a cash register: Apple's version of that was unveiled with much fanfare this month. But there may be a problem, and that problem is not a technical one but a business one. More on that. And later today, we'll hear how Twitter did last quarter. So, how much time does the company have to find a way to make money? Plus, the United Nations reports  1.3 billion tons of food gets thrown out every year. And now, figuring out how to keep perfectly good produce and leftovers out of landfills has become fertile ground for tech innovators. 

Jack Lew goes to Africa

Mon, 2014-10-27 02:00

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew is in Cairo Monday, Tanzania Tuesday, and South Africa Thursday and Friday. He'll be meeting with finance ministers and business leaders, "to discuss the state of the global economy and policies to promote regional growth and investment," according to an official  Treasury Department advisory.

"When the Treasury Secretary goes to Africa, it’s about finance and private investment," says Todd Moss, senior fellow at the Center for Global Development. "I would expect some kind of either energy or agriculture deal to be announced in Tanzania."

"[Tanzania] has discovered vast reserves of natural gas," says Witney Schneidman, a Brookings fellow and Africa advisor at Covington and Burling. 

Schneidman says Treasury might want to evaluate the government's capacity to negotiate the resulting complicated energy contracts. "Sometimes Treasury will actually deploy some of their people to work in the ministry of finance," he says. 

But the visit isn't primarily about volunteering resources.

"There will be some specific deals announced, probably at each stop," says Moss. "Otherwise it’s a huge wasted opportunity."

But both Schneidman and Moss say the larger goal is to send a message: that Africa—home to six of the ten fastest growing economies in the world—matters to the American economy.

The connection between data and voter turnout

Mon, 2014-10-27 02:00

Data is hugely important to politics—for fundraising, sure—but also for getting registered voters to the polls. Ahead of the 2014 midterm election, state and local candidates are using tools the presidential campaigns pioneered two years ago, and they are testing out technology designed to get out the vote in 2016. 

In his office at NGP VAN, the company’s CEO and president, Stu Trevelyan, shows off a new “social organizing tool.” Many Democratic campaigns use NGP VAN’s technology. Trevelyan and his colleagues have created what he calls “a virtual phone bank.” A campaign will use your Facebook profile to find friends of yours in competitive districts.

“I grew up in Massachusetts. I know a lot of people there,” Trevelyan explains. “I went to college in California. I know lots of people there. I can actually identify people from that district and actually begin calling them.”

The thinking is you are more likely to take advice from someone you know. Campaigns are trying to tap into what’s called “social capital.” Until recently, campaigns relied on actual phone banks, and volunteers on the ground, going door-to-door.

“So there were a lot of clipboards and a lot of paper, and frankly, a lot of data that didn’t get used,” Trevelyan says.

According to David Nickerson, an associate professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, it is now common for a canvasser to carry a smart phone. An app will have a script; afterward, the volunteer can punch in some important information. “And that data is automatically uploaded with a time stamp, and then it gives you the next household you are supposed to go to,” says Nickerson, noting new technology makes it easier for campaigns to allocate resources better.

“You do that next round of calls, you can remove all the dead wood,” he says. “Or if the people said they didn’t support, you can make sure that you don’t knock on them again.”

Campaigns are also trying out new tools to get a sense of what voters are still up for grabs.

“Through the use of statistical modeling and surveys and experiments, it is now possible to really focus efforts on people who are most likely to change their mind if contacted,” says Patrick Ruffini, a Republican strategist with Echelon Insights.

The digital landscape is constantly changing, he says. Last time around, social media was not the primary way for campaigns to communicate with likely voters directly. By 2016, it may be, and campaign strategists like Ruffini and Trevelyan want to refine new tools before the next presidential election.

 

 

 

 

Food waste provides fertile ground for tech innovators

Mon, 2014-10-27 02:00

Food waste is a big problem around the world. The United Nations reports that 1.3 billion tons of food are tossed every year. But now, figuring out how to keep produce and leftovers out of landfills has become fertile ground for tech innovators.  

Throwing out food happens all along the supply chain. Here’s an example: A farmer ships out a truckload of eggplant, but when it arrives, the re-seller thinks the color’s a bit off.  

“They say it should be dark or it should be purple. I’m not really sure what color eggplant is supposed to be, but a lot of times, eggplant is refused because it’s not the color they want,” explains long-haul trucker, Richard Gordon. "Or you might get a load of potatoes with too many eyes in it or too many curves and they reject it for that reason.”

Gordon has transported food along the East Coast for 30 years. When a shipment was rejected, he hated throwing it in a dumpster, so he’d call his brother to help. 

“I would get on the phone and try to find a place for him to donate it to,” says Richard's brother, Roger Gordon. “We realized one day that hey, you know, Rich is calling me from a mobile computer, we should be able to find a way to take me out of the equation.”

Two years ago, Roger Gordon launched the web and app service, Food Cowboy. It connects truckers, wholesalers, caterers and restaurants with food charities and composters. Food rescuers will pay 10 cents a pound and suppliers can get a tax write-off for the donation. 

When food becomes available, it has to get to a rescuer fast, which is why an instant, established network is important. As a result, food waste apps are popping up across the country. In New York, there's PareUp, and in northern California, Crop Mobster. Two MIT business students are launching Spoiler Alert in Boston later this month.

“We are creating a mobile marketplace and routing tool to help businesses connect with other businesses to help one another manage their excess, expiring and spoiled food,” explains Ricky Ashenfelter, who created the service with his classmate, Emily Malina. It’s a happy coincidence that Massachusetts just banned large amounts of food waste from heading into the landfill.

Malina says users will pay a monthly subscription fee to set up transactions based on profiles filled out by the retailers and rescuers. “Spoiler Alert would then be used to confirm the exchange, route the driver from the non-profit, in most cases, to the destination where the food is available and then process the transaction,” says Malina.

These start-ups hope that bringing partners together will reduce landfill waste and curb hunger. Roger Gordon estimates Food Cowboy has brought more than 100,000 meals to people who need them. “We have a lot of problems in this country, a lot of really complicated problems, but hunger and food waste shouldn't be one of them,” he says. “We have enough food to feed every hungry person in America, wholesome food, every day.”

His brother, Richard, sums it up best. 

“No matter how small it is, I hate to throw it away,” says Richard Gordon. “And, I can’t eat that many carrots, you know.”

How long does Twitter have to not become MySpace?

Mon, 2014-10-27 02:00

Since going public last fall, Twitter has yet to announce an actual profit. And as the company got ready to announce quarterly earnings this fall, analysts expected the company to announce another modest loss.

Twitter has introduced some new features in recent months—including a “buy” button for certain brands—but nothing especially dramatic. How much time does the company have before it gets lumped in with companies that never quite took over the world, like MySpace? 

Twitter makes some money by selling ads. Just not a profit. Analysts say ads aren’t a great fit with what users want from Twitter.

But analysts also say that Twitter is so useful to so many people, that profits must surely be there, somewhere. 

"I always like to say that the day television was invented was not the day the 30-minute sitcom was invented, or the one-minute advertising spot," says Rebecca Lieb from The Altimeter Group.  

However, some of the analogies suggest that Twitter’s success is not a sure thing.

For instance, Rob Enderle invokes the old joke about the kid who smiled like crazy while he shoveled through a pile of horse manure. "I honestly think there’s a pony in that pile," he says, "but it’s harder to discover because Twitter’s just so very different than everybody else is."

He thinks Twitter’s got maybe 12 to 18 months to find the pony. Which, again, he thinks is in there somewhere. "Somebody eventually will come up with something that works" he says. "And if it isn’t Twitter, then Twitter will likely be replaced by that company."

Like how Google replaced Yahoo, and Facebook replaced MySpace.

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