Samaritans Radar scans tweets for signs of suicidal intentions

29 Oct 2014


Social networks are a hubbub of digital noise and chatter, with people posting everything from casual opinions and updates on their breakfast, to breaking news and heated arguments.

Many companies and brands sweep these social platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, to glean information about potential customers in a bid to better target services and products.

But few would ever think of using that social data as a means of suicide prevention. However, the Samaritans charity has revealed a new website dubbed Samaritans Radar which scans and flags "potentially worrying tweets" to a Twitter user once they register their account.

Developed in partnership with digital agency Jam, the service will email registered users with details of tweets from people they follow that contain phrases such as 'tired of being alone', 'hate myself', and 'depressed', which potentially indicate a risk of suicide.

The email will also contain advice from Samaritans on how Twitter users can support their friends  and the people they follow, who may be harbouring suicidal thoughts.

The charity acknowledges that the algorithm will take some tuning to filter out sarcasm and dark jokes: "Samaritans Radar is in its infancy and won't get it right every time. But there's a way for you to give feedback on whether a Samaritans Radar alert was correct, so the service improves for everyone as it learns more."

Samaritans stressed that the Radar will send alerts to Twitter users only by email and will not encroach on their or other users' experiences, nor will it ever post from a registered user account.

While it is not unusual for people to go online for support, the process of applying algorithms to a situation that is open to interpretation and context may seem like a way of dehumanising the provision of personal support - in part digitising empathy.

But with 15 million Twitter users in the UK, Radar could provide an online safety net that has until now been notable by its absence. In turn, Radar could help people take a more active role in giving support to others in a way that has traditionally been the domain of specialist charities.

While Samaritans Radar could be seen as a pseudo nanny state service, it is another example of digital technology that could yield life-saving results.

OCP makes its move with networking push

09 May 2013

A number of network cablesNot long ago, a few engineers from Facebook hatched a plan to rethink the way the company built its hardware.

Rather than buy pre-fabricated servers from vendors and plug them directly into a datacentre, they took a close look at close look at their own usage case and began to log what they did and didn't need in server hardware. Eventually, they were able to design a server that eliminated a number of unnecessary components and fashion a design perfectly suited for web applications.

Seeing how well this apporach worked, Facebook opted to make the idea public and the open compute project was born. The idea soon gained steam and before long OCP was being backed by some of the biggest names in the business.

Now, it seems that the idea is making the jump into the networking field. The OCP has unveiled its plans to launch a brainstorming session aimed at creating the blueprints for a no-frills networking switch that could compliment the OCP server platform.

If you're not sure as to the impact of this idea, just take a look at the early backers of the project. In addition to the likes of Intel and Facebook, networking firms such as Brocade and Netronome have signed on to support the project.

One of the big factors in spreading the OCP message is the rise of cloud computing services and the need for larger datacentres as providers scramble to accommodate demand. When under such pressure to scale, often commercial networking, storage and compute products are ill-suited for the job and contain a number of unwanted pieces.

This could be why the OCP has gained such traction, and could gain even further sway in the coming years as virtualisation and cloud computing make hardware setups less and less of a factor for the major buyers.

Friends are overrated on social networks

11 Apr 2013

Digg logo

Time was, any start-up with even the vaguest connection to the 'social' buzzword would have an army of venture capitalists knocking down their doors with the offers of money. Indeed, it's the idea that social ties can provide advertisers with more effective ways to target their message that has seen the likes of Facebook achieve massive valuations.

But what if these social ties aren't as effective as we might assume? That's the conclusion of a group of researchers from Delft University of Technology. Are friends, they wonder, overrated?

Christian Doerr and his colleagues have been studying the impact of social ties on Digg – which may not enjoy the buzz it did in its heyday, but still represents a useful example of how users engage with content on a social network.

Doerr and his group wanted to study what impact friendship had on the popularity of any given story on Digg – and whether friends were a critical component of stories getting promoted to Digg's front page.

Users of the site can vote up content they find interesting, and see what other stories their friends have voted up too. Indeed around 180 stories per day get enough votes to be deemed popular, at which point they're featured on Digg's front page, at which point the can go viral.

In examining which stories went viral, the researchers looked at 10 million stories from two million users over a four-year period, 200,000 of which achieved a critical mass.

"The impact of the friendship relations on the overall functioning and outcome of the social network is actually surprisingly low,” Doerr and his colleagues reported.

So while users with similar interests and physical locations could be seen forming friendships, they showed little sign of following up on what their friends were doing. 

“Users with even a nearly identical overlap in interests react on average only with a probability of two percent to information propagated and received from friends,” the researchers note.

Furthermore, of the stories that became popular, friendships were only important in driving popularity in about half of all cases – and even then, they needed a large of random users to vote stories up to the extent they made Digg's front page.

“The importance of friends and the friend network in the propagation of information is less than originally perceived,” they concluded.

Such behaviour is a far cry from the marketing message often pushed out by social networks, who argue that peer group recommendation makes a uniquely powerful way to reach consumers.

The research was published on the ArXiv academic paper [pdf] repository. 

Nasa and Star Trek icon win social media Shorty awards

10 Apr 2013


Nasa and former Star Trek icon George Takei have both won Shorty awards for their innovative, and often out-of-this-world, use of social media.

Nasa won its second consecutive Shorty award for the best government use of social media, while Takei edged out ever popular "Grumpy Cat" to win a distinguished achievement in internet culture award at the fifth Shorty Awards.

Nasa won the award for its dynamic use of services to share its research findings with the world, sharing things like photos from Mars' surface and explorative satellites to jokes about Pi day.

The agency's policy of encouraging scientists and astronauts to create accounts on Twitter to share their experiences participating in missions was also praised during the ceremony.

The policy means that to date, Nasa uses almost 500 social media accounts with its main @NASA Twitter handle boasting 3.8 million followers.

Web sensation George Takei, the 75-year-old actor and author who first shot into fame as Hikaru Sulu in the Star Trek TV series, won his award for very different reasons.

Takei's Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr blog to share comic internet memes sent to him by fans and occasional commentary on poignant political issues.

These have included images of his chief competitor for the award, Grumpy Cat, a feline that seems unimpressed with any item brought before her.

His calls for donations for charitable causes have proved very effective. Takei famously used his Twitter to raise money for disaster relief efforts in Japan following the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami in 2011.

You can watch the Takei's acceptance speech for the Shorty award in the video below.

Facebook has had a privacy problem for a very long time

09 Apr 2013


Facebook doesn't make money on hardware, software, or subscriptions. Instead, they make money on the data users put out. They take the data users send out and sell it to advertisers who in turn sell users stuff through the use of targeted ads.

The idea that major corporations sell users data scares a lot of people. These people don't necessarily have anything to hide; they're just ordinary people who like to have a sense of privacy.

These people use Gmail, Facebook, and Google+. Some of them will even probably end up using Facebook Home.

These potential Facebook Home users spoke up about their fears that the app/skin/thing would invade their privacy in a way unheard of previously. So Facebook went on the offensive and dropped a Q&A for Home's privacy policies.

The Q&A basically said Facebook Home doesn't change the way the company handles user data. User's location data won't be collected in anyway that is unique and it won't collect data users create from other apps.

So if nothing changes then what is the end game? Why is Facebook making a free super-app that doesn't do anything new for advertisers? Because by putting itself on your home screen, Facebook can gleam a lot more data using the same policies.

By buying into Facebook Home users will be sort-of using a Facebook ecosystem. Facebook already has an app store which has the potential for growth. It also has a messaging service and a slew of other apps users could use to replace their current Android offerings.

Facebook Home allows Facebook to use the same privacy policy on a much bigger canvas. With Facebook Home, Facebook isn't reinventing the wheel. Instead, it's just the start and it's nothing new. Google's been doing it for years.

The famous Microsoft "Scroogled" campaign derided Google for searching through Gmail messages to serve up sponsored ads. Google uses all of its apps to give advertisers some new kinds of data.

Now Facebook is doing the same thing as its semi-rival Google. It's building out an ecosystem in attempt to better understand how to sell its users stuff. So if you are the type to worry about Facebook Home's privacy policies, you should be less focused on Home and more focused on Facebook as a whole.

Facebook's current privacy policies are the real issue, not the future violations of an unreleased app. If anything is to be done, it should be getting Facebook to update its current policies to better adapt to mobile.

The company has already defined itself as a mobile company so perhaps it should make privacy policies that reflect that. If Facebook really wants to talk up its privacy agenda, it needs to really work to change what its current policies are and not to talk about what its doing with a new app.

Facebook plays it safe with Home

05 Apr 2013

Facebook Home group post

Everyone expected a Facebook phone and we all sort of got one. HTC launched the aptly titled HTC First, the mid-level handset with Facebook features front and center.

However, that wasn't really the whole story.

The real news is that Facebook has launched an Android Skin. Mark Zuckerberg and his team just launched Facebook Home, an Android "super-app".

Zuckerberg said Facebook Home is mobile software built around people and not apps (to which Microsoft said this). It's giving users the chance to get Facebook front and center on their mobile device.

So instead of launching a phone, Facebook has launched something phone-esque. It is an Android skin that offers Facebook something different while not offending its friends in the mobile world.

It's a good play from Facebook. They needed to do something to grow and move forward. As a public company they have investors to answer to and needed to show that they have a plan for the mobile market.

A phone may have come on to strong. Giving HTC exclusivity on Facebook would have probably failed in the long run. Too much competition exists in the smartphone arena. Facebook is too big to try to be a disruptive source like Mozilla.

So Facebook did the smart thing and made something that can be used across the world of Android. By doing so, Facebook has the chance to grab some mobile advertising data from all sorts of Android users.

Facebook can now offer location-based data that can be sent to advertisers to offer consumers location-aware ads. The social network can now better monetize mobile advertisements and see improved revenue in the mobile sector, where everybody checks Facebook anyway.

It may not be an amazing announcement, but it's a good one. Slow and steady seems to be Facebook's plan of action. The company is creating something that could branch out into other things but at the moment is pretty simple.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg ranked as most beloved chief executive

19 Mar 2013


Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg has been named most popular chief executive, according to a Glassdoor study.

Glassdoor reported that Mark Zuckerberg had a 99 percent approval rating among his employees. Zuckerberg's approval rating jumped over 10 percent from 2012. Other tech chiefs to make the top 50 included Larry Page, Tim Cook and Larry Ellison.

The Facebook chief's approval rating jumped 14 percent from 2012 to 2013. Zuckerberg's approval rating was only 85 percent last year. The increase in popularity could be attributed to the fact that Facebook had not gone public as of last year's study results. Or it could just be that Mark Zuckerberg has fired everyone who disliked him.

Another interesting note is that Tim Cook's approval rating dropped year-over-year. The Apple chief executive's rating dropped from 97 percent to 93 percent over the course of the last year.

Google's Larry Page also ranked highly, according to Glassdoor's study. The high powered executive ranked as the 11th most popular chief this year. His 95 percent approval rating stayed consistent over the course of last year.

Less loved, but mostly liked, executive Larry Ellison rounded out the top 50. Oracle's founder was ranked the 46th most well-liked chief executive with an 82 percent rating. In comparison, Ellison's former employee (and current nemesis) Salesforce founder Marc Benioff had a 94 percent approval rating.

One executive to not make the top 50 this year was Microsoft's head Steve Ballmer. Redmond's resident chief executive also failed to make Glassdoor's list in 2011.

Facebook like data reveals users' hidden personality traits

12 Mar 2013


People's intimate personal details which they may not wish to share publicly – such as their gender, sexual orientation and drug use – can be reliably guessed at, by analysing their Facebook likes, according to new research.

A team from the University of Cambridge's Pschometrics Centre, working with colleagues from Microsoft Research, analysed 'like' patterns of 58,000 US Facebook users, who volunteered to share their data.

Their models were able to predict male sexuality with 88 percent accuracy, identify political affiliations with 85 percent accuracy and even spot whether a subject was likely to use recreational drugs with between 65 percent and 73 percent accuracy.

Tellingly, the researchers were able to make these predictions even though the vast majority of likes users made were not for explicitly revealing links: less than five percent of gay users reviewed liked topics such as 'gay marriage'.

The vast majority of likes were for music, TV shows and films.

The implications are not just linked to Facebook, said Michal Kosinski, operations director at the Psychometric Centre, with people potentially leaving a vast digital crumb trail across numerous sites, that could be used to discern revealing information.

"Similar predictions could be made from all manner of digital data, with this kind of secondary 'inference' made with remarkable accuracy - statistically predicting sensitive information people might not want revealed,” he said.

“Given the variety of digital traces people leave behind, it's becoming increasingly difficult for individuals to control.”

The results threw up some odd links. For example, those that liked curly fries were more likely to have a high IQ; those that clicked 'like' on a link entitled 'That spider is more scared than u' were more likely to be non-smokers.

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