DIY Databases are Coming

“The software revolution has given people access to countless specialized apps, but there’s one fundamental tool that almost all apps use that still remains out of reach of most non-programmers — the database.” AirTable.com on CrunchBase

Database technology is boring but immensely important. If you have ever been working on a spreadsheet and wanted to be able to click on the contents of a cell to get to another table of data (maybe the cell has a person’s name and you want to be able to click it to see their phone #, photo, email, etc), then you’ve wished for a DIY database.

I’ve been waiting for this technology for many years and am happy to report that it’s nearly arrived. Two startups are taking on the DIY database challenge from different sides:

Screenshot from 2016-01-20 18:20:27
If you can make a spreadsheet you can make a map with Awesome-Table.


Awesome-Table is a quick and easy tool for creating visualizations of data inside Google Sheets. It offers a variety of searchable, sortable, filterable views including tables, cards, maps and charts. They’re easy to embed so they are great for creating and embedding directory data onto websites. Here’s an awesome table visualization of
worker coops in NYC.


AirTable is a quick and easy way to create tables that connect to and reference each other. This allows for multi-faceted systems you can travel through by clicking on entities. For example, you can define people in one table, organizations in another, and offices in a third, and then connect them all together so a user can browse a list of people, click on an individual’s organization, and then see all that organization’s information, including its many offices. Pretty useful!

The progress of these two startups leads me to believe we’re less than a year or two away from truly lightweight, easy to use, free of cost, DIY database building systems, and an open source one not too long after that.

The increasing accessibility of database technology has a lot of implications. The most obvious one is that it will enable people to build their own information management systems for common use cases like contact directories, CRM systems and other applications that just can’t be done with existing spreadsheet technology. This will make a wide variety of solutions more accessible to people – so if you want to start or run a business, manage common information resource, or just organize personal information better, you’ll enjoy DIY databases very much.

More interesting to me is the implication that they can have for people trying to reform and democratize institutions.

If you spend time in the type of information management systems used by institutions big and small – whether it’s government agencies like the sanitation department or educational ones like high schools or universities, you’ll quickly notice that many of their most useful and critical tools are nothing more than a set of data tables (directories) and visualizations of the data contained therein (search/filterable tables, cards and maps of that data.)

Screenshot from 2016-01-20 18:19:07
Turn spreadsheets into searchable/filterable directories with Awesome-Table.

These very rudimentary but widely used internal software systems not only define the information people within that institution can access and share, but also limits them to very specific workflows that are implicitly or explicitly defined in the software. Since workflows define the work people actually do, the people who control the workflow are also people who control the workers.

If you want to change how an institution does things, you have to be able to change its information management systems. Since current database technology requires specialized software coding skills, changing these systems often turns into a bureaucratic nightmare filled with bottlenecks. First, a specific group of pre-approved people need to agree to design and fund a change, then another specific group of people need to program and implement the change, and yet another group is often tasked with training and supporting users who then have to use the updated system. That creates a lot of potential bottlenecks: executives who don’t know a change is needed or don’t care enough to fund the work; managers who don’t want to get innovated out of a job or don’t know how to design good software; technologists who don’t have the time to implement a change or don’t have the motivation to do the job right. With all those potential bottlenecks it’s easy to see why so many well funded institutions have such crappy software and archaic workflows.

When people try to improve institutions, they are often trying to improve workflows so more can get done with less time and resources. Unfortunately, the people who actually know what changes need to be made are rarely in a position to control the architecture of the databases they use to get things done.

With DIY databases, people within institutions can circumvent all these bottlenecks simply by making superior systems themselves. This can change a lot more than simply the type of information people have access to – it allows them to explore news ways of being productive.  What they’ll inevitably discover, particularly if they’re in an institution that spends a lot of time managing information, is that they can do a better job managing information than many of their bosses.

DIY databases are enabling the type of horizontal and bottom-up innovation essential not just for better functioning institutions, but also more democratic ones. Databases are the “means of production” for many information workers. When they can build and own their own ones, they’ll be able to achieve more ownership of their own work and take another big step towards being able to manage themselves.

Of course, as technology improves and creating you own databases becomes easy, the hard part will certainly become getting peers to use them.  That’s a topic for another day.

“Open Tech and Open Data: The Key to Whole Community Engagement” at IAEM 2015

The International Association of Emergency Management (IAEM) Conference was described to me as the Oscars of Emergency Management field. The event took place in the Paris Hotel in Las Vega November 14th. It was three days after the Paris attacks. Walking under the hotels faux Eiffel Tower and through its simulated Parisian streets was uncomfortable.

Nevertheless, the event was quite informative. Right before my presentation was a session about building your own emergency operations center (EOC) with inexpensive off the shelf tools and another one by the head of St Louis’s Office of Emergency Management explaining how he managed the reaction to the killing of Michael Brown.

My presentation wasn’t as well attended as I had hoped. Maybe the title wasn’t compelling. But it went well. The audience was engaged and we had a good back and forth. Unfortunately, due to technical problems, my sessions wasn’t recorded like all the others. I would have really liked to have seen that video. Instead, at the request of the IAEM, I recorded my presentation via Hangout Live. You can see that video here.

This presentation is the most well rounded of them all. It gives a solid overview of the four facets of open aid:

  • Open Technologies
  • Open Data
  • Grassroots Disaster Relief Networks
  • Volunteer Technical Communities

At the end it offers a diagram for how we build an integrated information management ecosystem cycling information from local community groups through municipal, state and federal agencies and channel resources effectively.

Google Presentation

Video of Presentation

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Preparing for the Worst, Hoping for the Best: Data Standards, Superstorm Sandy, and Our Resilient Future

Originally posted at OpenReferral

In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, many residents of New York City were left struggling.

Occupy Sandy Relief Effort at St. Matthew St. Luke Episcopal

Though a broad array of supportive services were available to survivors — from home rebuilding funds to mental health treatment — it’s often hard for people to know what’s available and how to access it. New York City lacks any kind of centralized system of information about non-profit health and human services. Given the centrality of non-profit organizations in disaster relief and recovery in the United States, this information scarcity means that for many NYC residents recovery from Sandy never quite happened.

As in any federally-declared emergency scenario, every officially-designated disaster case management program was mandated to use the same information system — the Coordinated Access Network (CAN.org) — to manage survivors’ access to benefits and other steps along the path to recovery. CAN has its own resource directory system, but it is proprietary and not available to the public; survivors often need to make a phone call to a case manager to get even the most basic information about the services. In conversations with those case managers who have had the privilege of being able to access this resource, we’ve heard that its interface is confusing and its data is often duplicated and outdated.

As a result, most disaster case management agencies ended up managing their own resource directories — in isolation from each other. Some organizations were able to cobble together relatively comprehensive service directories, but others don’t have any, and rely on individual case managers to solve the problem themselves. Now, just a bit over two years after the storm, the funding for these disaster case management programs is coming to a close — and so the local, personal knowledge about Sandy recovery services held by these social workers will disappear.

Yet the need remains great. Less than 3% of houses that applied to be rebuilt after Sandy have been completed – and people involved know that this may be a decade-long process for thousands of New Yorkers. The organizations that will serve them will be local, under-funded or entirely unfunded, and organized through a volunteer-based ‘long-term recovery organizations’.

sarapis-logo-red-300x64Our organization, Sarapis, has been providing free/libre/open-source software solutions to grassroots groups and long term recovery coalitions since the storm first hit New York City in October 2012. Through our community technology initiative, NYC:Prepared, we’ve been helping community-based recovery groups make information about critical services accessible to the public.  We’ve aggregated what may be the most comprehensive and searchable directory of services for Sandy victims in NYC on the web (a scary thought, considering our organization’s tiny budget).

NYC:Prepared's Post-Sandy Recovery Resource directory can be embedded within the websites operated by NYC's volunteer disaster recovery networks.

The data in our directory comes from a hodgepodge of sources: nonprofit websites, PDF printout, shared spreadsheets created by long term recovery group members, and .CSVs produced by individual case managers passionate about sharing resources. Initially, we used Google Spreadsheet and Fusion tables to manage all of this.

With the introduction of the Human Services Data Specification (HSDS), through the Open Referral initiative, we’re now able to manage this information using a standardized, well documented format that others can also use and share. And that’s precisely what we try to encourage others to do.

Openly accessible, standardized human service directory data is critical for each of the phases of a disaster. For disaster preparedness, service information can help identify gaps in the allocation of resources that communities might need during a disaster. For disaster response, many different kinds of organizations and service providers need simultaneous access to the same information. For disaster recovery, survivors need an array of services to get back on their feet, and they should be able to find this information in a variety of ways.

With the Ohana API, we can glimpse a world in which all of the needs above can be met. So we’ve deployed a demonstration implementation of Ohana at http://services.nycprepared.org. In Ohana, we now have a lightweight admin interface for organizing our data and a front-end application to serve it to the public in a beautiful and mobile friendly way.  Since Ohana is an API, other developers can use it to make whatever interfaces they please.

sahanalogoWhile we’re quite impressed with the Ohana product, its out-of-the-box web search interface won’t meet everyone’s needs. The system that we’d most like to use would be our open source disaster management software called Sahana. Sahana is the world’s leading open source resource management software and we want to build a component — available to any community — that will enable it to consume, produce and deliver HSDS-compatible resource directory data.

By making it possible for any agency using Sahana-based systems to consume and publish resource directory data in the Open Referral format, we can shift the entire field of relief and recovery agencies towards more interoperable, sustainable, and reliable practices. Sahana specialists are ready to develop this open source, HSDS-compatible resource directory component — at an estimated cost of $5,000.  Please consider donating to our effort. And please reach out to Sarapis if you know of other communities and use cases in which this technology could enhance resilience in the face of crisis.

“Sharing Data to Improve How We Cooperate, Coordinate, Communicate & Collaborate” at NVOAD 5/14/15

This presentation was delivered at the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster Conference 2015 in New Orleans.

I’ve been an active (and actively marginalized) participant in my local NYCVOAD community, so it was nice to feel accepted by the broader VOAD community.

Of all the presentations I’ve given, this one felt the best. The audience was very engaged and we had a robust back and forth. It felt electric. Outbursts came from the audience. It felt like a unique space. The feedback was fantastic. Much thanks goes to Marie Irvine who helped put the presentation together and who co-presented with me.

This presentation is based around the concept that “Open Networks that efficiently provide relief after a disaster are built on Open Technology and Open Data. It explains NYC:Prepared’s toolset and has extensive training materials about open data within the context of disaster.

Google Presentation

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Scattered Showers of Interest

The establishment, at least a very small subset of it, discovered my work the second week of October.  It wasn’t a thunderstorm of interest — more like scattered showers — but when you’ve been in the desert for a while, a little rain can go a long way.

First stop on my tour was Washington DC, where I spoke on a panel organized by STAR-TIDES at National Defense University about Occupy Sandy, along with Shlomo Roth and Isadora Blachman-Biatch, who was one of the authors of the fantastic Occupy Sandy report funded by DHS.  I think there is video somewhere…

Then, was flown to San Jose by the IEEE for their Global Humanitarian Technology Conference to give a talk about “How Humanitarian Organizations and Grassroots Networks Can Collaborate on Disaster Response and Recovery

The last day of the conference I got on a red eye flight back to New York City so I could give “Grassroots Disaster Relief Network Response to Superstorm Sandy: Successes and Opportunities” at The Christian Regenhard Center for Emergency Response Studies (RaCERS) of John Jay College.

You can find more public presentation about NYC:Prepared here.

 

 Rain designed by SuperAtic LABS from the Noun Project

NYC:Prepared Presentation at RaCERS John Jay College 10/14/14

“The Christian Regenhard Center for Emergency Response Studies (RaCERS) is a unique applied research center focused on documentation of lessons learned and planning for future large-scale incidents.”

I had the honor of presenting to one of their classes of students pursuing masters degrees in Emergency Management as well as a number of professors in the school.

This presentation was very similar to the one at the IEEE HTC Conference a few days earlier, but since it was to a New York focused audience, I explored the connection between Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Sandy a bit more extensively.

The audience reaction was extremely positive. The professors and students asked a ton of questions and everyone expressed frustration with the state of information sharing in the Emergency Management sector. There was one older man who mean mugged me the entire presentation, had no questions and didn’t say a word. I couldn’t tell if he was upset with me for arriving late (sorry!) or because he really didn’t like the way I presented Occupy Wall Street as an important element in the resilience of New York City.

Google Presentation

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NYC:Prepared Presentation at IEEE HTC 2014

I had the honor of presenting NYC:Prepared at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Humanitarian Technology Conference 2014 held in San Jose, California.

The presentation situates Occupy Sandy within the context of Occupy Wall Street and explains how social movements prepare participants to respond during disaster.

It goes on to outline four phases of Occupy Sandy activity:

  • Scouting
  • Networking
  • Relationship Building
  • Autonomy Projects

NYC:Prepared is one of the autonomous projects that emerged from Occupy Sandy. The presentation continue with a vision of how grassroots communities and institutional relief providers can use free and open technology to more effectively collaborate.

I review the software and data needs of various stakeholders and propose a set of free and open solutions.  Then I present the various tools and template we’ve made available in New York City and beyond.

The presentation is long and pretty comprehensive – too much so for the audience. They appreciated my style and enthusiasm but in the future I’ll certainly try to reduce the comprehensive nature of the presentation and focus more on precisely what I want to deliver the specific audience.

Presentation on Google

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Five Ways to Fight ISIS Without Killing People

Like many Americans with a memory, I’m stunned how easily this country can be convinced to support another undeclared war in the Middle East.  All the media has to do is run a week of programming alluding to nice folks getting their heads chopped off, then do a big poll that establishes the “fact” that the general public wants action and then BAM: Drop the bombs!  No Congress necessary.

This new war with ISIS, just like other undeclared wars in Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan, is justified by the same logic as the others: “We’re fighting them over there so we’re not fighting them over here.”  It’s a childish idea that only makes sense in a world without airlines, the internet, and history.

So first, a brief history of American interactions with “ISIS”.

During the “Arab Spring”, people throughout the Middle East came out into the streets to protest their corrupt political leaders.  In Syria, the leader was Bashar al-Assad, who is Shia (aligned with Iran) and Baathist (aligned with the late Saddam Hussein.)  Assad is obviously not popular with the western powers, but he’s particularly despised by Israel, which identifies his regime, along with Iran, as the main patrons of Hezbollah, a “terrorist” force fighting on Israel’s northern border.

When Assad was challenged by his people, many of his geopolitical opponents hoped his government would fall, and they put their money where their politics was: giving hundreds of millions (maybe billions?) to support rebel groups fighting a civil war against Assad.  One such segment of the groups fighting Assad were Islamist Sunni, and one such group in this segment was ISIS.

I’ll let the mainstream media tell you why the USA is now fighting ISIS. I’m not entirely clear on the matter.  One thing I am clear about is that the strategy of funding Syrian rebels to fight anyone, be it Assad or ISIS, hasn’t been working.  If past performance is any indication of future results, it won’t be long before the training and weapons the US government sends over to Syria fall into ISIS hands as well.

A broader question Americans should asking themselves and their politicians is: do we really want to send more weapons into a region of the world that has been bombed by America for decades?  Why would people there do anything but take our weapons and use them against us?

Another question worth asking is why do we want to keep increasing the number of Syrians and Iraqis being bombed by America?  Isn’t that a surefire way to make more people hate America?  And, in these technologically empowered times of $500 drones, plastic explosives and polished online videos inciting people to conduct lone wolf attacks on Americans, isn’t it clear that it’s never been easier for hatred of America to turn into a terrorist attack on Americans?

More weapons won’t solve the ISIS problem. Neither will bombing our new allies enemies.

We need nothing less than a new foreign policy approach: one that focuses on achieving our objectives without murdering people and making more folks hate America.

Below are a few ideas to suppress ISIS without resorting to murder, from someone whose only qualification is that he graduated from a prestigious university with a major in history (and a concentration in Middle Eastern and African.)

1. Partition Plan

 

Iraq and Syria are nations created by Europeans during the fall of the Ottoman Empire with World War I, and the borders were designed for purely European political reasons.  It was called the Sykes-Picot agreement, and it basically said that the French could influence Syria without interference from the British and the British could influence Iraq without interference from the French.

Notice how the USA wasn't involved.
Notice how the USA wasn’t involved.

By the 1970s, both Iraq and Syria were governed by Baathist political parties using “big man” patronage and violence to hold onto power.  They also both resisted US domination of the region and acted belligerently towards Israel, resulting in the US targeting them for regime change.

If your interest is political stability, pursuing regime change is a bad idea, because regimes enforce borders, and during the process of change, those borders become weaker.  If people don’t like the borders, during the transition between regimes, they’re going to want to change them.

After the USA invaded Iraq and changed the regime, one might have expected the US to facilitate a process whereby the Iraqi people could rethink their borders – particularly since these borders were imposed a century ago by foreign nations and have always been unpopular.  Splitting up Iraq would have likely been quite popular among Iraqis, and this could have been done in a managed way that empowered civil society and limited sectarian violence.  It might not have been a pretty process, but it would have been a whole lot prettier than a decade of civil war in Iraq and the rise of ISIS.

iraqsyriaDue to the logistical realities of the Middle East, the US could have never invaded Iraq without Turkey’s support.  And, due to political realities, the Turkish government wouldn’t have supported a US invasion if the US’s intention was to partition Iraq.  Why?  Because Turkey wants to make sure the Kurds in Iraq and the Kurds in eastern Turkey don’t get together to form a Kurdish nation with territory in both Iraq and Turkey. Indeed, Turkey has been fighting Kurdish separatists who’ve been trying to do just that for decades.

Other nations aren’t so excited about partition either.  Once people start rewriting borders – no one knows where it will stop: Turkey, Syria, Iran, Kuwait, Egypt, Spain, Scotland, Texas.  The prospect of border instability terrifies the global power structure – even more than ISIS does.

Since the US and its allies failed to redraw Iraq’s borders, ISIS is more than happy to do it instead — and give the people of that area something they genuinely want: to more easily travel between Iraq and Syria.

2. Administrative Support

 

Governance — more specifically, the administration of a municipality or a nation — isn’t easy.  You have to collect taxes, provide services, respond to constituencies, maintain roads, organize elections and so much more.  A lot of this work is an information management challenge — and there are software tools and operational techniques that can make this process easier, more efficient and more equitable.  Did America provide these tools to the Iraqi government so it could efficiently provide services to its citizens?  No.  Did they outsource this process to contractors who took US taxpayer money and provided the Iraqi government with the lowest quality products they could get away with providing?  Of course!  Does the Iraqi government have any type of modern administrative system to deliver services to constituents?  Doubtful.  Do people now aligned with ISIS praise its administrative effectiveness and capacity to provide for local people?  You bet.

Instead of setting Iraqi governments up to get ripped off by US corporations, the US government should be providing free of charge administrative software tools and operational techniques to the governments it wants to see succeed.  The US should be vigorously training an effective bureaucracy that empowers the Iraqi people to govern themselves in more effective ways instead of spending its resources on an ineffective army that handed its weapons over to ISIS.

If people think their government is doing a good job, they’re less likely to side with the rebels that want to overthrow them.

3. Treat PTSD from the Sky

 

It’s safe to say that every time a bomb goes off in Iraq and Syria, many of the people who witnessed the explosion develop some type of post traumatic stress disorder.  PTSD is a difficult to diagnose.  One of its symptoms is rage.  That’s a symptom that many people in Iraq and Syria certainly have — and lots of it is directed at Americans.

Fortunately, studies now show that PTSD is actually relatively easy to treat using a substance called MDMA.  Unfortunately, MDMA is classified by the US government as a Schedule 1 drug – meaning it’s illegal to possess for any reason.  Is the recreational use of MDMA more of a threat to public health than millions of people running around with untreated PTSD?  I doubt it.

Instead of dropping bombs on Iraq and Syria, we should be dropping MDMA and training people there to facilitate sessions that, in conjunction with MDMA, can treat and even cure people of PTSD.  Obviously this won’t bring back the lives of family members that have been lost, or the homes that have been destroyed, but it would help create opportunities for folks to get relief and heal themselves, at least partially, from the damage war brings to individuals and communities.

4. Engage over Social Media

 

ISIS is very active on social media – which means their members can easily send messages out to the world, and the world can send messages to them.  This is a pretty new phenomenon.  Smaller terrorist groups have been active on social media, but never has such a large group been so active.

This creates a lot of opportunities for the US.  It enables genuine engagement and dialogue with the enemy.  We should be talking with them, not just to convince them to be nice, but also to learn more about them.

That’s a nice thing to do, but there also ways to go on the offensive using social media. We can create fake ISIS accounts that distribute confusing messages – messages that create ambiguity about ISIS’s activities, political objectives, religious interpretations, cultural norms, etc.  The US can also engage in classic trolling activities by dumping ridiculous comments into ISIS forums, sending them pornography, and being just plain old mean – so mean that people no longer want to hang out in the online spaces that ISIS hangs out in.  This is tactic that worked against Occupy.  It’s hard to organize online if all the online spaces that people organize are filled with meanness.

5. War for Oil or Peace for Water?

 

People make decisions based on perceived economic benefit.  Are people going to prosper more under ISIS or a regime more friendly with the US?

At the end of the day, issues in Iraq and Syria, like issues everywhere, boil down to economic realities.  Who has the jobs?  Currently the answer is the oil industry.  Where is the money?  The places where the oil industry is active.

The US can and should help develop economic engines in Iraq and Syria that have nothing to do with oil.  A great way to do this is to focus on water instead of oil – and help people in the Middle East turn barren deserts into lush landscapes that produce an abundance of fruits, nuts, vegetables.  It’s very possible to do this using proven permaculture techniques.  It  requires some heavy machinery (no tanks), designers who understand how to build-up water resources in arid climates, and folks who want to grow lots of food.

http://permaculturenews.org/2014/02/01/desert-oasis-4-years-jordan/
http://permaculturenews.org/2014/02/01/desert-oasis-4-years-jordan/

If the US were turning Middle Eastern deserts into verdant farm land that created local jobs (instead of extracting resources and bombing people) groups like ISIS wouldn’t have any recruits.

These are just a few ideas that come from a different perspective – one that attempts to propose that Americans will be safer if Iraqis and Syrians are happier with their lives.

I think Thomas Jefferson would agree.

“Equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political; peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none….”

Thomas Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1801

“History bears witness to the fact, that a just nation is taken on its word, when recourse is had to armaments and wars to bridle others.”

“All the world is becoming commercial. Was it practicable to keep our new empire separated from them we might indulge ourselves in speculating whether commerce contributes to the happiness of mankind. But we cannot separate ourselves from them. Our citizens have had too full a taste of the comforts furnished by the arts & manufactures to be debarred the use of them. We must then in our defence endeavour to share as large a portion as we can of this modern source of wealth & power.”

Additional Resources

 

NYC:Prepared Presentation at NYC OEM Volunteer Conference 5/31/14

Thanks to a positive reviews from my presentation at the Red Cross in April 2014, I was invited to present at NYC Office of Emergency Management’s Volunteer Conference on 5/31/14.

Since I was speaking to city officials and volunteers, I tried to show the audience how they could use simple techniques to understand, share and collaborate using data.

Some of the elements in this presentation were developed further to create my Data Basics Training.

Google Presentation

PDF Archive

Tools of the New Economy: Cryptocurrency, Games and POS Systems

The last five years have transformed conventional and alternative economics.

During this time period, the Federal Reserve Bank has created more US dollars than it had in its entire history before 2008 – and it’s still creating around $85 billion/month through its “quantitative easing” program. Many economists, especially those from the Austrian school, are anticipating some type of currency crisis in the not too distant future.

Source: http://research.stlouisfed.org
Source: http://research.stlouisfed.org

Meanwhile, in less than five years, the value of a unit of Bitcoin has gone from $.01 to over $1000 (at the time of this writing), with a market capitalization of over $15 billion dollars.  Thousands of businesses have been created to service the Bitcoin economy and three more robust cryptocurrencies have emerged, ensuring that the concept of cryptocurrency will live on no matter what happens to Bitcoin.

To understand the emerging field of cryptocurrency-based economics, we need to look beyond Bitcoin and towards the ecosystem of solutions that will make new/alternative economics a lived experience.  Before we can do that, we need to define some terms.

Money

First, let’s define money.  It has has three functions.

  • It’s a means of exchange – so you can use it to trade with people.  Ex. I give you a dollar, you give me a cup of coffee.

  • It’s a store of value – so the unit can hold value over time. Ex. A dollar won’t “go bad” like a bushel of wheat.

  • It’s a unit of account – so you can use units of money to request payment, document your income and expenses, and plan for big purchases, retirement, etc.

Fiat money

Fiat is a Latin word that means “let it be done”.  I’ll let Wikipedia define fiat money for me:

  • any money declared by a government to be legal tender.

  • state-issued money which is neither convertible by law to any other thing, nor fixed in value in terms of any objective standard.

  • money without intrinsic value.

Another way to describe fiat money is that its value is derived from the capacity of a government to force people to use it.

The US Dollar, Euro and all major national currencies all qualify as fiat.

Cryptocurrency

Dollar bills have a variety of “security features” that make them difficult to counterfeit: the intricate designs, the quality of the cloth/paper on which they’re printed, special threading, plastic inserts, holograms, serial numbers, and more.

Bitcoin and Litecoin the new silver and goal?
Bitcoin and Litecoin: the new gold and silver?

Digital currencies also need security features so they can’t be counterfeited. To create these features, software developers use the practice of cryptography.  Cryptography allows people to turn a message into a nonsensical string of symbols, numbers and letters that can only be “deciphered” with a “key”.  People who have the key can see the message, while people who don’t, can’t. Cryptocurrencies use a network of computers to authenticate units of digital currency during transaction. These networks operate similarly to how the popular peer-to-peer file sharing system BitTorrent works: a user downloads and runs a client on their computer which holds their files (or bitcoins) and lets the user send, receive and authenticate them.

Games

Games are a form of structured play. The structure is made up of rules and rewards. In many games, the reward is explained as a “victory condition”: the set of things that need to take place for someone to win the game. Games without victory conditions often have reward systems that become much more intricate. While there are many possible reward systems in games, the two I’m focusing on are points and badges.

Points are tokens that players earn by engaging in certain activities. The accumulation of points is proof of a player’s progress in the game. Sometimes games allow players to spend their points on items in the game (ex. new costume for an avatar), trade their points with other players or cash out their points so they can spend them in the real world. When games allow players to do these things, point systems become a form of money.

Badges are issued to players to indicate achievement and status. They often accompany another type of reward, such as access to additional levels or components of a game.  Unlike points, they can’t be spent or traded among players, but they can be used within games and outside of them to signal reputation. Everything from diplomas to credit ratings can be displayed as badges.

POS Systems

POS system on an Android Tablet
POS system on an Android Tablet

POS is an acronym that stands for “point of sale”. 50 years ago, cash registers were the main type of POS systems. 30 years ago, credit card terminals connected through telephone lines to banking servers were added to many POS systems so that people could use credit cards in stores. 10 years ago, many POS systems added custom computer operating systems so they could provide more features to their users such as managing inventory and dynamic pricing. Now, people are using consumer-grade smart phones, tablets and laptops with (often free) POS applications as POS systems. Since merchants are now using  consumer hardware and software, they have an unprecedented amount of control over the systems they use to transact — and software developers can make POS solutions just as easily as they can make any other type of application. This means that, from a technical perspective, many stores are just an application download away from accepting gaming rewards and/or cryptocurrencies for their products and services. Indeed, there are already a number of commercial loyalty programs that merchants are using with their POS systems to sell their items for points or give people with special status (i.e. badges) specific discounts and deals.

Predictions and Implications

As the old currency system breaks down, the question many people are asking is: what will take its place?

The answer is, in my opinion, an unimaginable diversity of things that will no longer be limited to solutions based in national fiat currencies.

Here’s a list of predictions I’ll continue to explore going forward:

  • The proliferation of cryptocurrency like Bitcoin and Litecoin. Some will be reputable and stable; others will be scams. Over time, the market will separate the wheat from the chaff.

  • The integration of cryptocurrency technologies into gaming platforms so that games can provide people with rewards they can spend in the real world.

  • The development of “productivity games” whereby people work or volunteer to earn “game” credits or point that they can use in the real world.

  • The incorporation of cryptocurrencies and gaming reward mechanisms into modern POS systems, making it as easy to spend alternative currencies as it is to use a credit card.

  • As it becomes increasingly easy for people to use the rewards they earn for day-to-day transactions, the lines will blur between conventional currencies and reward currencies; and conventional jobs and rewarded game play.

My Next Steps

I believe that these developments will democratize finance by enabling anyone to turn their assets and resources into “reserves” that they can use to “back” their own currencies.

Nonprofits can benefit greatly from this type of activity.  Here’s how:

  • A group creates a list of tasks they’d like their constituents to complete
  • Each task is descibed and assigned a point value
  • People complete tasks, send in proof and receive points that they can spend in the group’s online store
  • The group can modulate demand for it’s points by modifying the contents and prices in their online store.

In a subsequent post, I’ll explain how to turn this theory into reality using WordPress, the world’s most popular free/libre/open-source content management system.