The Facebook civil rights audit is a mixed bag

For more than two years, a team of civil rights activists have been examining Facebook’s actions under a microscope. They have issued various interim reports: this week they produced their final report, which evaluates how well Facebook has done in implementing their extensive recommendations. The short answer: not very well.

The report covers a wide scope of activities, including eliminating hate speech, policing posts that are threatening democratic elections and the collection of US Census data, changes in advertising policies and algorithmic bias, inciting violence, and policies promoting diversity and inclusion. It would be a tall order for many tech companies to resolve all of these issues, but for business the size and scope of Facebook, I would expect to see more coherent and definitive progress.

At first glance, Facebook seems to be trying — maybe. “Facebook is in a different place than it was two years ago,” as the report mentions. The company has begun several initiatives towards making amends on some of their most reprehensible actions, including:

  • Setting up better screening of posts that encourage hate speech or promote misinformation or harassment. The auditors mention that while there have been improvements during the study period, specific recommendations haven’t been implemented.
  • Prohibiting ads that mention negative perceptions of immigrants, asylum seekers or refugees.
  • Creating new policies prohibiting threats of violence relating to voting and elections outcomes.
  • Expanding diversity and inclusion efforts, although in interviews with Facebook staff the auditors feel there is still plenty of room for improvement and could do a lot more.
  • Eliminating explicit bias in targeting housing, employment and credit application ads by age, gender or Zip code.
  • Making changes to its Ad Library to make it easier and more transparent for researchers to search for bias and to determine if Facebook is making progress in implementation of these policies.

But when you read the entire 90-page report, you get to see that while the company has moved (and is continuing to move) towards a more equitable and appropriate treatment, they have just begun to move the needle. “It is taking Facebook too long to get it right.” they state.

Megan Squire, a CS professor at Elon University, wrote to me with her reaction. “The report highlights the same kinds of inconsistencies and persistent failures to act that I have experienced as a researcher studying the hate groups. These groups still routinely use Facebook’s platform to recruit, train, organize, and plan violence. Onboarding civil rights expertise is something they have yet to do in the white supremacist and domestic terror space, but I hope they strongly consider something like this in the future.” Squire refers to hiring civil rights specialists to round out various teams. The final report mentions this hiring in several contexts, but doesn’t touch on it when it comes to the sections on fighting hate speech and improving Facebook’s content moderation.

One thing that occurred to me as I was reading the report is how many of the issues mentioned have to do with the actions of our President and his campaign staff. Many of his statements, on Twitter and Facebook and in his campaign advertising, violate the auditors’ recommended actions. They auditors mention a trio of Trump posts in May which contained false claims on mail-in voting and an attempt at voter suppression. The posts were removed by Twitter but left online by Facebook. “These political speech exemptions [justifying keeping them online] constitute significant steps backward that undermine the company’s progress and call into question the company’s priorities,” the auditors say. “For many users who view false statements from politicians or viral voting misinformation on Facebook, the damage is already done without knowing that the information they’ve seen is false.” The auditors mention civil rights advocates’ claims that Trump’s content is “troubling because it reflects a seeming impassivity towards racial violence.”

The auditors specifically address this, saying “powerful politicians do not have to abide by the same rules that everyone else does, so a hierarchy of speech is created that privileges certain voices over less powerful voices.” They mention how Facebook has reined in anti-vax proponents but ironically has been “far too reluctant to adopt strong rules to limit misinformation about voting.” They go on to state, “If politicians are free to mislead people about official voting methods (by labeling ballots illegal) and are allowed to use not-so-subtle dog whistles with impunity to incite violence against groups advocating for racial justice, this does not bode well for the hostile voting environment that can be facilitated by Facebook in the United States.”

Facebook has tried to blunt the auditors’ criticism, saying that from January to March 2020, they removed 4.7M pieces of hate speech-related content, which is more than twice what was removed in the prior three months. That’s progress, but just the tip of the hate-speech iceberg. Earlier this week, Zuck once again promised to address the auditors’ issues. And last week, the company announced they are trying to still lock down API access to private data, after yet another revealing breach of private user data was discovered. Clearly, they could do a better job.”Facebook has a long road ahead on its civil rights journey.” I agree. It is time we see progress over promises.

Fighting online disinformation and hate

The past month has seen some interesting developments in the fight against online disinformation and hate speech. First was the K-Pop campaign that diluted the impact of white nationalists by filling the various social media channels with fan videos using their hashtags. The K-Pop fans were also initially credited for buying up tickets to the Trump Tulsa rally. While we know only about six thousand people attended the rally, it is hard to state with any certainty who really got those tickets in the end.

This is an effective way to blunt the impact of hate groups, because you are using the crowd to counter-program their content. What hasn’t worked until now is forcing different social media platforms to ban these groups entirely. This is because a ban will only shift the haters’ efforts to another platform, where they can regroup. As a result many new social platforms are popping up that are decentralized and unmoderated.

Megan Squire, a computer science professor whom I am distantly related, has studied these hate groups and documents how their members know how to push the limits of social media. For example, one group uses You Tube for its live streaming and real-time comments, then deletes the recorded video file at the end of their presentation and uploads the content to other sites that are less vigilant about their hate speech moderation.

Part of the problem is politics: tech companies are viewed as supporting mostly liberal ideologies and target conservative voices. This has resulted in a number of legal proposals. Squire says that these proposals are “naive and focused on solving yesterday’s problems. They don’t acknowledge the way the social media platforms are actually being gamed today nor how they will be abused tomorrow.”

Another issue is how content is recommended by these platforms. “The issue of content moderation should focus not on content removal but on the underlying algorithms that determine what is relevant and what we see, read, and hear online. It is these algorithms that are at the core of the misinformation amplification,” says Hany Farid, a computer science professor in his Congressional testimony this past week about the propagation of disinformation. He suggests that the platforms need to tune their algorithms to value trusted, respectful and universally accepted information over the alternatives to produce a healthier ecosystem.

But there is another way to influence the major tech platforms: through their pocketbooks. In the past month, more than 100 advertisers have pulled their ads from Facebook and other social sites. CNN is keeping track of this trend here. Led by civil rights organizations such as the NAACP and the ADL, the effort is called Stop Hate for Profit. They have posted a ten-point plan to improve things on Facebook/s various properties. It has been called a boycott, although that is not completely accurate: many advertisers have said they will return to Facebook in a few weeks. One problem is that the majority of Facebook business is from smaller businesses. Still, it is noteworthy how quickly this has happened.

Perhaps this effort will move the needle with Facebook and others. It is too soon to tell, although Facebook has announced some very small steps that will probably prove to be ineffective, if history is any predictor.

Documenting online antivax misinformation

Whatever your position on childhood vaccinations, a new report provides very solid documentation of the role played by various antivax pressure groups to sway public opinion using a variety of online social media platforms. The report is a joint effort of two non-profit organizations, the Sabin Vaccine Institute and the Aspen Institute. I haven’t read the entire report, “Meeting the Challenge of Vaccination Hesitancy,” (a copy linked to at the end of this post) but want to focus on its last chapter, a paper written by Renée DiResta and Claire Wardle. DiResta is a cybersecurity researcher at Stanford, Wardle is a TED fellow and US director of First Draft. Their paper examines the changing policies of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other online platforms towards the antivax movement.

There is no doubt that this movement has created a global health crisis, even before Covid appeared. Doubts about polio and measles vaccines have created new outbreaks of this disease in places such as Brooklyn, Samoa and Italy, among other places. Both of these diseases were considered cured just a few years ago and rarely seen anywhere. That all has changed as a result of increasing opposition to vaccinating children.

Part of the problem is the asymmetric relationship between pro- and antivax groups: the provax folks use mostly medical literature and poorly designed public health websites; the antivax folks use well-thought out videos, catchy Internet memes and powerful personal anecdotes to make their points. Having just a few global social media platforms means the antivaxxers can spread their message more easily too. The antivaxxers also give the impression that they are the sole trusted source of information about vaccines, which isn’t helped by the several missteps over Covid over the past few months from the CDC and WHO. It also helps that several celebrities have been pushing the antivax message, which gets further amplified by mainstream media.

The authors wrote: “To counter online misinformation, we must understand how the rumors, conspiracy theories, and misleading content that we see in digital spaces intersects with existing barriers to vaccination in different countries.” The researchers took screenshots of how people searched for vaccine information in different countries and compared those results with the official policies of the social media platforms. Not surprisingly, things didn’t line up. There are “real concerns which still exist about whether these promised changes to vaccine-related policies are having the desired effect.” For example, a search for the term “vaccines” on Instagram in February 2020  produced top results that were disproportionately pushing antivax positions, even though Instagram instituted changes to reduce this misinformation almost a year earlier.

“Anti-vaccination activists have gained a deep understanding of how to communicate
effectively on social platforms and have developed techniques to take advantage of their unique characteristics, such as groups, ads, and trending topics,” they wrote. That is a depressing situation.

Another problem is that the state health departments are largely in charge of vaccination programs, and the antivaxxers are very organized at the state level to pressure their legislators to enact laws supporting their point of view. “The ability of the pro-vaccine community to tell a more compelling story more persuasively and to spread its evidence-based message to broader audiences online is an imperative for public health,” conclude the researchers.

Click to access sabin-aspen-report-2020_meeting_the_challenge_of_vaccine_hesitancy.pdf

Measuring your Covid KPIs

A friend of mine has been noting several of her family’s key performance indicators (KPIs) during the Covid Times. Things like how many minutes her family collectively naps and exercises each day, or the number of days they have cooked dinner together (vs. getting takeout) or total episodes of Tiger King they have watched. At first I thought it was very cute and clever but now I think this idea is worth a closer look. After months under lockdown, we all need some solid data to measure how we are holding up under the strain. And you all know how much of a data nerd I am.

This week the NY Times published its own instructive “pandemic rules”. The piece included accounting for the number of close contacts, managing your exposure “budget” and keeping higher-risk activities as short as possible. All are worthy goals.

Here are a few more of the ones that I have discovered from my wife and I being under lockdown.

  1. Number of bottles of wines remaining before resupply. Early on in the Covid period, we didn’t venture out for anything. I wanted to order at my favorite wine shop and pickup at the curb. Their website was terrible and it took forever to find things that would have taken me about 15 minutes if I was shopping at the physical store. Thankfully we aren’t big drinkers but we will eventually have to restock.
  2. Rolls of toilet paper remaining on hand. No more needs to be said of this.
  3. Instacart fulfillment wait times. When we began in March, we already were big users of Instacart for grocery delivery. Orders which were usually filled within hours of completing the carts suddenly took days or even a week as newbies jumped on board this system. Thankfully they have gotten things back under control and now are back to a few hours to fill.
  4. Teenage eye rolls per day. Thankfully we are empty nesters, otherwise the first metric might have to be adjusted. But hearing from parents of teens who are sheltered together more has been interesting. Some teens are finding out what mom and dad actually “do” during the work day instructive, and perhaps are more sympathetic when sharing the communal “office.”
  5. Number of Zoom minutes consumed by non-work activities. As Zoom has become the de facto connective and social tissue of our lives, its use varies depending on our social needs.
  6. Steps. We have always tracked our daily step count, but finding places to walk where you aren’t dodging folks can be tricky.
  7. Proportion of non-masked people encountered. Across our region this varies by place, time of day and other factors. Hard to have any hard and fast rules here. But we both are using them as much as possible when we are out.

If you have suggestions on other metrics to determine progress, do share in the comments.

A brief history of lightbulb manufacturing

Given that we are all at home, I was thinking the other day of some of my favorite museums that I have visited during better times. As long-time readers might remember, I am a big fan of the Henry Ford Museum outside of Detroit. I was reminded of all the treasures in their collection when the news broke this week that GE was finally selling off its light bulb division to  Savant, a smart home company. GE had this division for more than a century, and it had been losing money on it for several years.

The light bulb is an iconic product for the company that was founded by Thomas Edison. But the real innovation happened not when Edison came up with the initial invention, but about improvements to how they were made. Back in the 1880s, glassblowers were able to create a bulb every 30 seconds if they got good at doing them. Moving forward thirty years, engineers had developed machines that could produce perhaps ten or twenty bulbs a minute. But that wasn’t fast enough, particularly as electrification was growing quickly.

It took a master glassblower working with a mechanical engineer from Corning to come up with a truly novel idea. A heated ribbon of glass went through a machine that could stamp out hundreds of bulbs per minute. The resulting equipment literally replaced entire factories, and this is what is on display at the Ford Museum. (Parts of Edison’s Menlo Park lab are also on display there too.) Of course, this machine also put legions of glassblowers out of work.

A GE engineer would go on to invent the LED bulb in the 1960s, which was the eventual undoing of incandescent bulbs. Actually, there were LEDs before this time, but they only output infrared light. This invention figured out how to output visible light, and sixty years later we have LED bulbs that can output thousands of colors controlled from our smartphones, from Phillips and Savant, the company that acquired the GE lighting assets.

Check out some of these innovative LED designs that I came across online. And if you ever get the opportunity to visit the museum, you will find it a delight and well worth your time.

Family tech support questionnaire

As we become more reliant on technology to support our sheltering-in-place, we realize that many older folks are not quite digital natives and don’t feel comfortable with the now-common computing tasks that many of us have jumped on to handle our lives. And that means that more and more of us have become forced into the de-facto family tech support role. As someone in my generation (60-something) who has been a tech family support nerd for more than half of my life, I wonder how many of you are experiencing this situation?

Supporting our non-tech savvy relatives has gotten harder because now so many of us depend on tech to get through the day. The stakes are higher, and the lack of digital literacy can have much higher consequences these days. So to help you out, let’s start by taking stock of the dimensions of digital literacy that you might encounter.

Herewith is a simple questionnaire to give you some idea of how this will all play out in the time of the lockdown.

  1. Can your family members receive and read an email attachment? This is a basic requirement for many online activities, such as reading recipes and receipts from online orders, obtaining documents and other items. While you may be adept at email, your older generation might have difficulty.
  2. How often does your family member check their email? Many of our family members haven’t developed a regular email habit. This could be generational: older folks never learned touch typing and young ‘uns prefer texting. Without regular email scans, these folks can miss important notifications generated by their other online activities too.
  3. Do you and your spouse share a common email or Facebook account? Many elderly folks like to share accounts, but then who does what and when? If they don’t have a regular email habit, this makes the medium much less effective.
  4. Email isn’t the only connecting tech we all use these days. Does your family member use any common messaging app such as texting, Slack, Facebook Messenger, or WhatsApp? This can be a great way to stay in touch with multiple generations if you can agree on a single family platform. I have seen families that can’t find common ground, which makes communication difficult.
  5. Does your family member own a smartphone and can they install a new app on it? Many elderly have older-model “dumb” phones that date from the last century and don’t do anything other than make and receive phone calls. That can limit their effectiveness. If your elderly member has a more modern phone but still  can’t install or configure apps, you’ll have to assign someone for that support role who is located nearby.
  6. Have your family members used Uber or equivalent ride-sharing services? One of the first uses for a smartphone is with mobility: having a ride-sharing service is especially important for those that can’t drive or who don’t have cars. I know plenty of elderly who love their Ubers just as much as millennials. But usually someone has to show them the ropes.
  7. Have your family members done any restaurant curbside pickup or meal delivery? Many restaurants are asking customers to order online or via their smartphone apps. Being able to do this in these lockdown times is a way to help bring a little variety into someone’s life, as long as the family health protocols allow for meal deliveries.
  8. Have you ever read any Twitter posts? Uploaded any Snapchats and Pinterest photos? Often the grandchildren pix are the first mission-critical app for my generation and the learning curve to figure out these social network services can be frustrating.
  9. As we stay at home more, the center of entertainment is the TV, and today’s TVs are really computers in disguise. Does your family member watch any streaming service on their TV, such as Netflix, Hulu, YouTube TV, etc.?  Do they know how to set it up? If not, you will have to support that activity. My own smart TV sometimes loses its network connection, and a hard power cycle is the easiest way to fix that. Something is wrong with that.
  10. Let’s talk about paying for various things online. For many elders, cash is still king. I recall how my dad would never leave the house without hundreds of dollars in his pocket. But these days, cash is often not accepted for fear of viral contact. So seeking non-cash methods is important. One of the first things one of my family members did was get help to set up her online bill paying. She liked it and was happy to be rid of the chores of finding stamps and printed checks. Your family members may not be interested in this process, or they may want to dive in further and use contactless payment cards and online payment processors such as PayPal and Venmo to make it easier to move their funds around and send birthday gifts to the grandkids.
  11. The next step is buying all sorts of things online, including groceries and medicines. You might have a lot of support work needed to help your family member figure out where to do their shopping and how to navigate the piss-poor user interfaces of Instacart and others that are barely functioning right now.
  12. The elderly are big library patrons and these days libraries have moved to their digital efforts. Can your family members check out an ebook from their local library, or purchase an ebook for their Kindle? Many elderly would still prefer printed books and newspapers, but can they order them online from their local booksellers?
  13. One of the more popular apps to virtually meet is Zoom, and it is certainly a lot easier to join in a Zoom than some of its competitors. But how about if grandma wants to run her own book club virtually on Zoom? She might need some help getting it all setup.

As you can see, there is a lot of technology to master and manage. Being the family IT support person has gotten a lot more complicated. And as we depend on tech to get us through these times, it can be frustrating for all of us to solve the issues. Just take a step back, see how much tech we have acquired over the years, and take a deep breath.

Tracking your browsing using HTML canvas fingerprinting

Every time you fire up your web browser your movements and browser history are being leaked to various websites. No, I am not talking about cookies, but about a technology that you may not have heard much about. It is called canvas fingerprinting.

In this post, I will tell you what it does and how you can try to stop it from happening. Beware that the journey to do this isn’t easy.

The concept refers to coordinating a series of tracking techniques to identify a visitor using what browser, IP address, computer processor and operating system and other details. Canvas is based on the HTML 5 programming interface that is used to draw graphics and other animations using JavaScript. It is a very rich and detailed interface and to give you an idea of the data that the browser collects without your knowledge, take a look at the screenshot below. It shows my computer running Chrome on a Mac OS v.10.13 using Intel hardware. This is just the tip of a large iceberg of other data that can be found quite easily by any web server. 

HTML Canvas has been around for several years, and website builders are getting savvy about how to use it to detect who you are. In the early days of the web, tracking cookies were used to figure out if you had previously visited a particular website. They were small text files that were written to your hard drive. But canvas fingerprinting is more insidious because there is no tracking information that is left behind on your computer: everything is stored in the cloud. What is worse is that your fingerprint can be shared across a variety of other websites without your knowledge. And it is very hard once to eliminate this information, once you start using your browser and spreading yourself around the Internet. Even if you bring up a private or incognito browsing session, you still are dribbling out this kind of data. 

How big an issue is canvas fingerprinting?  In a study done by Ghostery after the 2018 midterm elections, they found trackers on 87% on a large sample of candidate websites. There were 9% of sites having more than 11 different trackers present. Google and Facebook trackers appeared on more than half of the websites and Twitter-based trackers appeared on a third of the candidate webpages.

So what can you do to fight this? You have several options

  1. Make modifications to your browser settings to make yourself more private. The problem with this is that the mods are numerous and keeping track of them is onerous.This post gives you a bunch of FIrefox suggestions.
  2. Use a different browser that gives you more control over your privacy, such as Brave, or even Tor. In that linked post I mention the usability tradeoffs of using a different browser and you will have to expend some effort to tune it to your particular needs. I tolerated Brave for about two days before I went back to using Chrome. It just broke too many things to be useful.
  3. Install a browser extension or additional software, such as PrivacyBadger, Ghostery or Avast’s AntiTrack. I have already written about the first two in a previous post. AntiTrack is a stand-alone $50 per year Windows or MacOS app that works with your browser and hides your digital fingerprint  — including tracking clues from your browser canvas — without breaking too much functionality or having to tweak the browser settings. I just started using it (Avast is a client) and am still taking notes about its use. 
  4. Only run your browser in a virtual machine. This is cumbersome at best, and almost unusable for ordinary humans. Still, it can be a good solution for some circumstances.
  5. Adopt a more cautious browsing lifestyle. This might be the best middle ground between absolute lockdown and burying your head in the sand. Here are a few suggestions:
  • First, see what your HTML Canvas reveals about your configuration so you can get a better understanding of what data is collected about you. There are a number of tools that can be used to analyze your fingerprint, including:

    Each of these tools collects a slightly different boatload of data, and you can easily spend several hours learning more about what web servers can find out about you. 

  • Next, assume that every website that you interact with will use a variety of tracking and fingerprinting technologies
  • Always use a VPN. While a VPN won’t stop websites from fingerprinting your canvas, at least your IP address and geolocation will be hidden.
  • Finally, limit your web browsing on your mobile devices if at all possible. Your mobile is a treasure trove of all sorts of information about you, and even if you are using any of the more private browsers you still can leak this to third parties.

 

Figuring out data transparency

Those of us of a certain age might recall when Barbie could utter the phrase “Math class is tough.” A good example of this is how to figure out the data transparency in the time of the Covid.

One of my go-to sites is the Covid Tracking Project, which is a group of computer scientists that daily scrape and interpret the thousands of county health stats for testing and infection data. You might have noticed that for each state’s data summary they issue a letter grade for transparency. How they arrive at that grade is instructive, and we should all take a moment to understand the calculations. Even if our business isn’t involved in public health, it can help inform and improve our own transparency efforts.

Just look at some of the recent transparency disasters from last summer, when Facebook and Equifax couldn’t be trusted with showing the truth behind their numbers. We want to be more transparent, because that means we have the ability to create trust with our customers and partners. So let’s look at how the Covid Tracking Project assigns these grades to each state and US territory.

Their transparency grade uses16 different metrics. These include factors such as: is the state’s official health website the best data source and consistently updated? Does the state report patient outcomes, such as how many patients are on ventilators? Does the state break down the demographics into ethnicities, race and pre-existing ill patients? How about total hospital capacity for the state? For each metric, the data quality can vary and the details matter. For example: some states just report positive tests and deaths. For some states, you have no way of knowing how many negative tests were obtained, or how many of those who tested positive then went on to consume an ICU or ER bed or other hospital resources.

The transparency grades are calculated each day: I have noticed that the grade for my state, Missouri, has varied from A to C. Today Nevada, Nebraska and Puerto Rico all have failing grades.

But wait, there is more. The project team also has a Slack channel and a GitHub public project where you can dive deeper into what is going on here. The former is used to address reporter’s questions and the latter is used to call out support or bug issues. The team also has taken pains to explain exactly what they are counting — for example, they look at where people are being tested, which is not necessarily where people first became ill. Every state reports these numbers somewhat differently: some use online dashboards or hyperlinked data tables, while others announce their stats at daily press conferences or via social media posts. The team has taken pains to double-check everything and annotate where things are ambiguous or unclear.

I should mention that the project relies on dozens of volunteers too: so managing all this collaboration is key. Clearly, there is a lot we all can learn from their excellent transparency efforts.

How to run a successful professional web conference

Now that we are sticking close to home, we are using web conferencing tools. No matter how tech-savvy you might be, running a great conference isn’t easy and will require a collection of people with various skills: part TV producer, part sound engineer, part professional speaker, and all sprinkled with a good deal of patience and troubleshooting. For the past several months, I have been on the production team of a rather large conference for the American Red Cross. We have a team of more than a dozen people that puts on this event every month, and lately has had several hundred attendees and multiple presenters. Every month we find and fix new and interesting problems, some technical, some social, some particular to Webex.

Before I give you some lessons learned from this and other web conferencing experiences, I want to relate an anecdote from this month’s call. I was talking to one Red Cross volunteer who was having trouble getting connected. When he told me that he was at a Red Cross blood drive and actually giving blood, I suggested that maybe he should just wait and watch the recording of the event. A few minutes later, he emailed me and told me that he had figured out how to tune in for the meeting. That is devotion!

Here are some suggestions so hopefully you can make your meetings more valuable and professional. You might also want to review another blog post that talks about more general collaborative techniques. 

  • Decide whether you want to display everyone on camera, run a live demo from someone’s computer or focus on the slide presentation. You can’t really do all three well, and switching from one to another can introduce issues. Pro tip: if you are sharing your screen, you’ll want to share it from a second monitor that is using a lower resolution. 
  • Simplify, simplify. Eliminate options to help reduce user confusion, and simplify the technical details whenever you can. Keeping things simple means less to go wrong. For example, we use two chat channels: the one built-in to Webex is for the attendees to ask questions (we don’t use the Q&A feature to keep things simple) and we have separate Microsoft Teams chat sessions so the production team can communicate with each other as issues arise during the session.
  • Use a consolidated slide deck. Give a deadline when additions/changes will be accepted, thereafter the deck is locked. This means someone will be the lead producer, who will advance the slides for everyone. On Webex, there are three different ways to share your slides: “Share the actual PPTX file” (recommended), “Share Application,” or share your entire desktop. Pro tip: with this latter method, you will want to turn off notifications on your computer — Focus Assist settings should be turned off in Windows or Notification Center set to Do Not Disturb with Mac. 
  • Assign roles with care. The more you can segregate these roles and spread among different people, the better the overall experience for your attendees.It also allows the production staff to focus better and provide a better attendee experience. We typically have at least six people that run each webinar:
    • the host, who acts as a master of ceremonies and keeps everyone on schedule.
    • The lead producer, who sends out meeting reminders and calendar invites, advances the slides, does audio checks, and is charge of everyone else during the event. The producer also posts a recording of the meeting and chat sessions to the various online repositories.
    • The secondary producer, who troubleshoots problems for attendees and presenters and responds to emails during the event about production and connection problems.
    • Two chat monitors: one as backup, one who will read the questions aloud and direct the appropriate person to answer them during the meeting at specific points.
    • A graphic artist, who whips the slide deck into shape visually.
    • In addition to these roles, there are several others that work in the background. We all report to a team leader, who is ultimately responsible for organizing each month’s speakers and does final review of all of our materials prior to the meeting. We also have note-takers who organize the after-action report and follow up with any promises made during the meeting.
  • Rehearse. All presenters should have a sound check prior to the start of the meeting. We usually do this the hour before the meeting: given that we have so many presenters, we want to make sure they can be heard clearly. This is usually where the problems happen, so resolving these early is key. We usually recommend to use a headset with its own boom mic and not to use a speakerphone. Also, rebooting your PC just prior to the meeting is a good way to clear out problems. Presenters should also rehearse moving from slides to live screens and back: the transitions can be tricky under certain endpoints and web service providers.
  • Put together several documents to help your production staff: these include a sample timings sheet with speaker, topics and start and ending times, a contact sheet of everyone’s phones and emails, and other production details.

As you can see, there is a lot of work to produce a quality web conference. Feel free to share your own tips here as well.

The art and science of mathematical modeling

With all the talk about “flattening the curve” and model disease predictions, I thought I would take the opportunity to explain exactly what these models look like. No, they don’t bear any resemblance to those people that walk down runways or the plastic things we put together with that smelly glue when we were kids.

My first brush with the art and science of math modeling was in graduate school at Stanford. I actually took an entire class in how to build them, and it was one of my favorite classes. Each week we would have a new assignment. What I remember about this class is that the assignment could take anywhere from a few hours to several days to complete. Sometimes — most times — the assumptions that I made were so wrong that I would have to start over. I remember a few of the assignments: one was to build a model to help women decide when they should get screened for breast cancer. Another was to help the Palo Alto school system decide which of their grade schools to close for under enrollment. These two were very tough, and I can’t remember if I came anywhere near the correct approach, just that they kept me up for many late nights.

What made this class interesting was that it was taught by two business professionals who lived in the “real world” and deliberately chose examples from some of their consulting projects. That particular class is no longer being taught. Indeed, searching through Stanford’s website, I was chagrined to find out that my degree, Operations Research, was eliminated more than 25 years ago. Time marches on.

Actually, I had an earlier experience with math models. I had a student job rebuilding these antique brass and string models that were created in the 1830s. They were used to teach students how to draw conic sections, back before we had Mathematica or even full-color textbook illustrations. But these are more literal “models” — for this post, I am talking more ephemeral constructs that are mostly data and equations.

Math models are being used all the time and don’t usually get much attention — until disaster strikes. One type of them that you consume daily is weather forecasting models. When a hurricane threatens part of the world, you see a variety of forecasted paths that the storm is likely to take: each one of those paths comes from someone’s model about past behavior. Another example is building a model to calculate how much flooring you’ll need to cover your room. That one is pretty simple, using additional and multiplication, but still you have to do the math to figure out whether you’ll need 10 or 20 boxes of materials.

Some of the most annoying math models were those “word problems” that we all had to solve in grade school. Maybe that is why many of us have steered clear of them in adult life. But after taking that modeling class in grad school, I got into math modeling as a career, and went to DC to become a consultant myself. I built models to support public policy decisions, such as whether to build a dam threatening an endangered species (my model said to go ahead, based on the economic outcomes) and whether to enact building energy conservation standards (my model said yes to that too).

Here are two places to look at noteworthy virus modeling efforts:

Stay healthy and safe wherever you are.