Stateside

Our time in Darwin ended sooner than we expected, thanks to a great opportunity that presented itself for my wife Julie. As it happens, the State of Wisconsin was looking for a forest economist – and the post would be back in Madison near family.

Of course, since I last posted here we have had a son, Emmett and travelled around Australia and Asia a bit. I have been working with the newly created Innovative Media Production studio at Charles Darwin University. Julie and I were working just a few buildings apart. Our son, who was now attending daily childcare was also on campus so we could all commute together, and often eat lunch together.

While our work and daily life was going great, it was hard to be so far from family with a toddler. Skype just isn’t enough for grandparents and we were beginning to outgrow the apartment unit we were in. We longed for the family-friendly Midwestern lifestyle that we grew up with.

In April Julie interviewed for the job. They asked for a second interview, which would have to be done via Skype, late at night due to distance and time zones. In May we found out that she was indeed selected for the role. We were thrilled, but also more than a little torn. Would this be the end of our adventures? As it happened, we got the email while on holiday in Hong Kong. We certainly wouldn’t be a stone’s throw from South-East Asia for some time again. And having done international moves in the past, we knew we were up for a huge amount of effort just to make it happen.

Now that the travel is over, and the boat with all of our stuff is on it’s way, we’re thrilled. Madison has so much to offer for a new family, and we feel like it’s a new place. When we left we were a young couple, more concerned about the best new restaurants than the best schools, so it has so far proven to be a new experience for us.

Our Next Adventure: Darwin, Australia

It is both sad and exciting to announce that my partner Julie and I have moved from Christchurch New Zealand to Darwin, in the Northern Territory of Australia. It was a tough decision to leave New Zealand, and we sincerely love the lifestyle there. If the people of Darwin are half as accepting of us we shall count ourselves lucky.

First, a bit about Darwin. If you’re not familiar with Australian geography, Darwin is on the very northern coast of Australia, across the Timor sea and just south of the island known as Papua, shared by Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. Darwin is some 40 hours by road from the large Australian cities on the East coast, but few Australians would call it the Outback. Not just because “the Outback” seems to be a term for some location more remote than wherever you are (Wisconsinites might find parallels with “Up North”), but because it’s not as dry and dusty as you’d imagine.
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In truth, Darwin is either dry or wet, with a defined monsoon season (known as “the wet season”) and a long dry period. So at least the first 50km inland is more like Southeast Asia than the rest of Australia, with banyan trees, palms and other vegetation that you certainly wouldn’t associate with a desert. Brightly coloured birds land on coconut trees and saltwater crocodiles swim amongst mangroves.

So you’re probably asking the same question that everyone we meet asks: “What brings you to Darwin?” There are a lot of people moving to Darwin these days, the city is in the midst of a growth spurt, due to some major developments. Most recently a company called INPEX is building a gas pipeline for LNG, which requires some 2,700 workers to live and work in the area for the next three years or so. Others have come up to support the cities growth in other ways, building new apartments, staffing the newly expanded hospital and working in the now jam-packed supermarkets.

We’ve come because my partner Julie Ballweg (formerly Julie Rodenberg) was offered a position as a research fellow at Charles Darwin University, studying the decisions of runholders of the vast Northern Australian land leases. As she had recently completed her postgraduate work at the University of Canterbury on the decisions of forest landowners, she was looking for a new project. Being in a highly specialised field, it’s not often that you find work at the university where you had previously studied, in fact, doing so might actually be seen as undesirable. But aside from the practicalities of life, we were up for a bit of adventure, and the Northern Territory was unlike anywhere we’d ever been, so why not just move there!

As a web developer I’m in the unique position to have skills that are in demand nearly everywhere in the world, and since I can work from any internet connection, Darwin sounded like an exciting place to be.

Anyhow, I’ve been pretty quiet on this personal blog for some time, busy with other commitments, and making most of my commentary in 140 character snippets, but I’m determined to get a few posts out, if not to help someone else thinking of coming to the Top End, than to at least look back in a year and laugh.

Jeff Ballweg Web Design Now CloudWorks Media

CloudWorks Media New Zealand

For the last few years I’ve been working hard for local businesses in Christchurch, around New Zealand and further afield in Australia and the US. We’ve made it through earthquakes, spent serval weeks without full facilities, and had a lot of hardships to deal with, but we’re proud to have done some really excellent work and helped our clients earn a lot of money.

Other than some weird, post-quake economics, business has been great. Demand is high and the quickly evolving nature of the internet yields new and exciting opportunities nearly every day. Small and medium businesses are embracing the web and seeing the huge amount of potential it provides for expansion and market research. In fact, these days we spend as much of our day doing statistical analysis and optimisation as we are strict coding, which illustrates the huge demand for this type of service.

As such, we’ve found the business has become quite a different entity than when we started. At a web business – like the internet itself – change happens quickly. Today we can analyse and measure so much more than small businesses ever could. We can collect vast amounts of data, and with analytics and statistics tools we can make the kind of results-driven strategy decisions that was previously only the domain of corporates with teams of consultants. It really is an exciting time to be in the business. Never before could a small business on a shoestring budget manage to test, analyse and refine a marketing ideas on such a short timeline and for so little money.

Gone are the days of planning a Yellow Pages advert one year and mulling a design change a year later. Today we can easily manage hundreds of variants of an advert on Google Search or the Display Network. We can determine which words, designs, specials and features draws the most customers in a matter of days or often hours.

Today we don’t simply focus on building a website; we focus on bringing the best possible results for business from the entire web marketing strategy. With our holistic approach; we get websites on the front page of Google Search, we analyse how the website works with social media like Twitter and Facebook, we study how clicks from online search and display advertising flow into website pages, and how we can improve the user’s experience both on and off the site to get the desired results for our clients. We evaluate return on investment on a per-click basis and can precisely calibrate ad spend to the channels where it is giving the best results.

We’ve done great things for the businesses we’ve been working with, and there is a tremendous demand for our results-driven approach, so the business is formally evolving to it’s second generation. We’ve rebranded and renamed. Jeff Ballweg Web Design is now known as CloudWorks Media.

We offer an expanded range of services, including performance analysis, search engine optimisation (SEO), online advertising and marketing through Google AdWords including DoubleClick and AdMob as well as other advertising systems like Facebook.

Most importantly, we tailor our services to meet the needs of each client. Whether you’re a charity interested in finding volunteers, an e-commerce business seeking more sales or a company trying to increase brand exposure, we can deliver analysis, reporting and strategy that delivers real, measurable results.

If you’ve got a website that isn’t giving you the results you’d hoped, or you’re looking to build a new site that actually gets results from the start, have a look at our new site at CloudWorks.co.nz.

Onward, upward.

Contact us in New Zealand on 0800 00 2024, from the USA on +1 (608) 554-0060.

Balance in the Economy of Foursquare

If you’re not familiar with Foursquare, here’s a primer: Foursquare is a location-based social network with gaming elements. To play, you download the Foursquare app onto your AndroidiPhone or Blackberry device (or go to m.foursquare.com if you have something else). When you’re out and about – at a pub, cafe, restaurant or anywhere else – you open the app and “check-in.” The app will use your phone’s GPS to see if you’re near a venue in it’s online database. Screenshot of Foursquare on iPhoneIf Foursquare finds a match, just tap a button to check-in to that place. If the venue isn’t in the database, type a name to add it. Straightforward, but why would you do this? Well, if you have friends that use the service, you can see if they’re nearby, or maybe they’ve left some tips about the place. You might share things like “Best pizza in town” or “Skip the pasta, try the salmon.” As more of your friends use the system, you should develop a better awareness of where you live, find cool places to hang out, explore the city and have fun based on the recommendations and information from people with similar interests. It’s an exciting concept, because it brings social networking closer to real life socialising.

Foursquare is unique, because in addition to the social networking aspect, it’s also a game, the object of wich is to collect virtual badges and “mayorships” by checking-in to more and different types of places. Check into a dozen coffee shops in town, and maybe you get a “coffee snob” badge. Check in after 3am Sunday through Thursday and you get a “Out on a School Night” badge. Be the person with the most check-ins at your favourite cafe and you’ll become the “mayor” of it. As such, some businesses have even started giving deals – say, free coffee – to the reigning mayor, adding real-world incentives for virtual social activity which creates a fun and potentially viral marketing angle to the traditional loyalty punch-card scheme.

There’s just one little snag with the game: it’s easy to cheat. You don’t have to be a hacker to do it either, though some have gone that route. You simply check into places you’re not really at. Because your GPS is only so accurate, and because most “places” you’re inclined to go are indoors, the little GPS (or radio-assisted aGPS) chip in your phone can only determine your location to within a few dozen – or a few hundred - meters, depending on your device and conditions. This is good enough to give a ballpark estimate of your location for the purposes of finding out if any of your friends are nearby, but it’s not accurate enough to give a definitive location or to verify a check-in. So, if I’m sitting at a pub in the CBD, checking-in to Foursquare, the GPS can’t actually tell if I’m at the pub, the shop across the street, or the cafe a few doors down – so I may as well go and check into them all. If the cafe next door wants to offer free coffee to the reigning mayor of their shop, they might soon find that none of their best customers are able to snatch the title away from the punters who frequent the pub next door.

I’m guessing that the game mechanics were layered on top as a marketing angle, which is a clever way to increase the user base, and bring people into the system. Allowing cheating to become commonplace, however, leads to “data pollution,” as those who cheat aren’t adding any value to the community, thereby depleting the usefulness of the service as a whole.

As a human living in a civilised society, your first thought is probably to bring cheaters to justice. Create a police department – punish the offenders! But on the internet, that doesn’t work, because policing cannot adequately scale as the system grows. The people who run Foursquare will never be able to find and stop everyone who cheats, undo every fake check-in and delete every fake venue. So discouraging such behavior has to be built into the game.

This is where we can learn from economics. If another layer, let’s just call it “credibility,” were linked to your ability to gain rewards, you’d add a reason not to cheat, to balance out the reasons you’d want to cheat. Your economics professor would probably call it “introducing moral hazard.” But that doesn’t really matter, here’s how it’d work in something like Foursquare: Everyone starts with a normal, medium credibility which allows normal, medium privileges. You can add places, you can steal mayorships and you can check-in at a new place every five minutes or so. Abuse the system by making too many check-ins too quickly or by adding useless places and  you run the risk that another user will catch on and flag you. A single flag would not lead to serious consequences – it might only slow down your maximum check-in rate to 10 minutes, which most people don’t do anyway. But if you continued your campaign of abuse, you’re likely to run into more users, who would also notice that you’re checking in all around town, and flag you as well, increasing your minimum wait between check-ins to 30 minutes. Or several hours. Or maybe days.

The theory is that the more prolific you become as a cheater, and the more broadly and blatantly you cheat; the more users would take note and flag you. The distribution, breadth and credibility of the users you’re being flagged by might also influence your penalty. If you’re simply checking into the pub across the street from the one you’re really at,  no one may take notice – or care – but if you check into every pub in town you can bet that dozens of folks would pick up on it. Your credibility would also be tied to your ability to attain rewards, so the best stuff might only be available to those in good standing.

If a credibility layer is implemented, I think that it should be used positively as well. The system could be more useful by using these points in the background to rank and display tips. For example, if I take the advice of a friend to get the salmon, and I really like it, I can indicate that I took their advice, improving their status and giving their tip a higher ranking in the list of tips for that venue. Maybe tips would always be listed in order of their writer’s credibility. Not only could this model limit cheating, but it might encourage people to provide more helpful tips, limit trolling and create a more useful system – being the most credible Foursquarer in town would be something to aspire to.

Dennis Crowley, co-founder of Foursquare notes that there are a lot of fake check-ins, but that they haven’t put a lot of effort into the problem of tackling cheating systemically. He seems to favour approaches that more closely validate your checkin.

I feel the phenomenon is rooted in economics. Wherever you create incentives, people find ways to use the system in unintended ways to get them. Such a system must also have disincentives, things that people do not want, which limit your ability to gain the incentives, and thereby balance the system. In the real economy, big rewards bear big costs, and so would it be in a micro-economy like Foursquare. Lasting success can only be gained by adding genuine value to the community, which can only be earned as the player becomes more respected by their peers.

I understand that a lot of these social tools are more social experiments than anything, and that cheating on Foursquare is hardly breaking-news, but I find it fascinating that any time the concept of reward is introduced to a society, even if it’s a tiny one like on Foursquare, you invariably find economics and game theory at work.

Update: Foursquare launched a new version today, and I’ve updated the screen-grab from the new version.