Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Technology and Persuasion

Persuasive technologies surround us, and they’re growing smarter. How do these technologies work? And why?
..The idea that computers, mobile phones, websites, and other technologies could be designed to influence people’s behavior and even attitudes dates back to the early 1990s, when Stanford researcher B. J. Fogg coined the term “persuasive computing” (later broadened to “persuasive technology”). But today many companies have taken that one step further: using technologies that measure customer behavior to design products that are not just persuasive but specifically aimed at forging new habits.
If habit formation as a business model was once largely limited to casinos and cigarette manufacturers, today technology has opened up the option to a broad range of companies. Insights from psychology and behavioral economics about how and why people make certain choices, combined with digital technologies, social media, and smartphones, have enabled designers of websites, apps, and a wide variety of other products to create sophisticated persuasive technologies.
How these technologies work and why are the big questions this Business Report will answer.
With new digital tools, companies that might once have been simply hardware makers (such as Jawbone) or service providers (Expedia) are now taking on the role of influencer, attempting to shape the habits of their users by exploiting the psychological underpinnings of how people make choices.
While Expedia is trying to design its website so as to trigger someone to visit daily, Jawbone has built features into its fitness bands and other products that executive Kelvin Kwong grandly describes as “using our best understanding of how the brain works to get you to act.” And Kwong says it’s working. Sending carefully designed messages to people wearing Jawbone fitness trackers has helped them get an additional 23 minutes of sleep per night on average, and move 27 percent more, the company says.
Habit Design, which bills itself as “the leading habit training program,” employs game designers and people with PhDs in behavioral science. It says it has created a platform that keeps 80 percent of participants in corporate wellness programs involved over three months. Traditional programs like seminars or counseling, by contrast, generally lose 80 percent of participants in the first 10 days, according to Michael Kim, a former Microsoft executive who is now Habit Design’s CEO.
Insights from psychology and behavioral economics about how and why people make certain choices, combined with digital technologies, social media, and smartphones, have enabled designers to create sophisticated persuasive technologies.
New data-centered models of persuasion are having an impact not only on new startups but on traditional influencers, from political consultants to advertising agencies. In politics, data consulting firms that emulate the kind of voter modeling, mobilization, and persuasion the Obama campaigns pioneered are multiplying.
One model for today’s new type of ad firm is Rocket Fuel, based in Redwood City, California. Staffed by people with PhDs in game theory and predictive modeling, the firm uses artificial intelligence to predict the best ad to show a given customer looking at a particular Web page, taking into account data gathered from websites; the browsing, advertising, and purchase history associated with a given shopper’s IP address; and insights into what style of ad works best on a certain website (blue hues are best on, for example). Founded in 2008, the company claims its targeted ads generate revenue for clients amounting to two to eight times what is spent on the ads. Last year Rocket Fuel had revenue of more than $400 million.
Marketers argue that there’s potential for all this to benefit consumers, who want better service and more suitable offers. “They expect companies have data on them. They just want it to do something useful for them,” says Philip Wickline, CEO of Zaius, a Boston-based startup building a platform that will allow a company to track customers’ behavior, with their permission, as they interact with it in stores, online, and in any other context. Armed with this information, companies could better understand the value of each customer and more effectively measure the return on ads or discounts directed at that person...By Nanette Byrnes (

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Tuesday, May 12, 2015

California drought: How the state's new water conservation rules affect you

The administration of Gov. Jerry Brown last week enacted historic new water conservation rules in response to California's drought. The goal is to cut statewide water use by urban residents 25 percent over the next nine months to help preserve water supplies in case the drought continues through next winter.
Q Am I affected?
A Yes. The rules apply to all 38 million California residents.
Q I've been hearing lots of confusing details. What do I need to know?
A There are basically three types of rules. Think of them as three buckets: First are statewide rules that ban water wasting. They apply to everyone. Second are mandatory conservation targets for cities and water districts. And, finally, there are local rules, which vary from place to place.
Q OK, let's start with the water-wasting rules. What can't I do?
A Get out those brooms. Nobody in California can use potable water to wash off sidewalks or driveways. Also prohibited is watering landscaping so much that the water runs off into a street, driveway, sidewalk or a neighbor's property. People also can't wash cars with hoses that don't have shut-off nozzles. It's also illegal to water a lawn within 48 hours of "measurable" rainfall. That can mean as little as a hundredth of an inch. Restaurants are banned from serving water unless customers request it. And hotels must post signs in each room offering guests the option to not have towels and linens washed daily. It's also now illegal to irrigate grass on street medians with potable water.
Q Are there exceptions?
A A few. The rules allow for washing pavement to address immediate "health and safety" needs, such as the way that some cities power wash sidewalks to remove human and animal waste.
Q Are there penalties?
A Yes. Violators can be fined up to $500 per offense, although enforcement is up to each city.
Q How can I report violators?
A Generally speaking, call your city water department or go to its Web page. In Santa Clara County, anyone seeing violations can call a hotline run by the Santa Clara Valley Water District. The number is 408-630-2000. Residents can email reports of water waste to In Alameda and Contra Costa counties, customers of East Bay Municipal Utility District can call 866-403-2683 or go to For customers of the Contra Costa Water District, reports can be made at 925-688-8044 or by clicking on the "report water waste" button at the district's website, at Finally, residents in Fremont, Newark and Union City served by Alameda County Water District can call 510-668-4200. Residents of San Mateo, San Benito and Santa Cruz counties should call their local water district or city water department."
Q Got it. What about the second bucket -- those mandatory cuts in water use?
A Last Tuesday, the State Water Resources Control Board passed rules that divide the 410 largest cities, water districts and water companies in California into nine tiers, based on their residential per capita water use from last fall. They will have to meet the targets, which are compared with their 2013 baseline use, or face state fines of up to $10,000 a day. Communities with low per-capita use -- such as Santa Cruz, Hayward and San Francisco -- will have to reduce water use by only 8 percent because they already have been conserving. Places with high per-capita use, such as Hillsborough, Beverly Hills and Bakersfield, will have to cut 36 percent. San Jose must cut 20 percent, EBMUD 16 percent and Contra Costa Water District 28 percent. To see the full list of which cities and water districts must cut by how much, go to and click on "Emergency Regulations Development to Achieve 25% Conservation." Then click "Proposed Urban Water Supplier Usage Tiers."
Q How will communities meet those targets?
A It will be up to each one to decide. Many will increase public outreach and offer increased rebates for people who buy water-efficient appliances. Most will limit lawn watering, usually to two days a week. Others will hire "water cops" to write tickets, while others will impose penalties and raise rates on people using more water than a set allowance. Some places have gone further. San Jose last month banned all washing of cars at people's homes -- regardless of whether hoses have nozzles -- and all filling of new swimming pools and hot tubs, for example.
Q What about the local rules? Where can I find out about the ones that affect me?
A Check with your water department, or if you receive a bill from a private water provider, check with the company. Most providers will be mailing out notices and updating their websites with local rules. Many already have begun that process.
Q But don't farmers use most of California's water? Why do cities need to save so much?
A Farmers do use 80 percent of the water consumed by people in California. But much of their water cannot be transferred easily to cities, either because they have legal rights to it or because of infrastructure issues. Water that an almond grower in Modesto doesn't pump from a well on his farm, for example, can't be shipped to the Bay Area or Southern California. And many of the state's farmers already have been hit with huge water cuts, losing 80 to 100 percent of their supplies from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta because of state and federal drought cutbacks. Most important, much of the water that urban residents save is from local reservoirs and aquifers. That's water they can use next year or beyond.
Q How hard is this going to be?
A It's not difficult for most people to save a significant amount of water. Lawns use 50 percent of all residential water in the summer. Cut your lawn watering in half, and you've saved 25 percent. The cuts will no doubt be harder for apartment dwellers. But they should check for indoor leaks and get flow restrictors for their showers and sinks. Many cities and water districts hand them out for free. Apartment residents might also want to encourage their landlords to replace old appliances and toilets. The landlords will often be eligible for sizable rebates.
Q Where can I get more information?
A To learn more about the rules, go to, or for water-saving tips, go to
By Paul Rogers (

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Elon Musk unveils Tesla Powerwall batteries to 'change the world'

HAWTHORNE, Calif. — Tesla founder Elon Musk just unveiled Tesla Energy, an ambitious plan to power the world with a new design of home battery called the Powerwall, with the aim of making more consumers less dependent on the grid.
The newly designed Powerwall, produced at Tesla's new Nevada Gigafactory, will be available in "three or four months" via various installation partners. It will cost around $3500 — and can theoretically be scaled "infinitely," Musk says, all the way up to industrial and utility level. The larger server-sized, industrial-level battery will be called a Powerpack.
"Our goal is to fundamentally change the way the world uses energy," Musk told a press conference at the Tesla Design Center on Thursday night. "It sounds crazy, but we want to change the entire energy infrastructure of the world to zero carbon."
The 10 kilowatt-hour Powerwall, available in a range of colors, functions best as a system of storage for solar power. But Musk points out it will also work for non-solar consumers in cases of power outage — as well as allowing them to avoid drawing on outside electricity during peak periods, when utility prices are highest.
"It provides security, freedom and peace of mind," Musk said — adding that "all we need" is to roll out 2 billion Powerwalls to meet the energy needs of the entire world, and that the poorest communities with no power lines will benefit the most.
"That seems like a crazy number," Musk admitted of the 2 billion figure, "but it’s comparable to the number of cars and trucks on the road [around the world] — and they get completely refreshed every 20 years."
Based on the Tesla Model S battery, but redesigned from the ground up, the Powerwall is a 6-in. thick, 3 ft. by 4 ft design intended to fit within a regular electricity substation. "It looks awesome," says Musk.
The Powerwall will be connected to the Internet, Musk says, to allow for the creation of local smart grids. Up to 9 devices representing 90 kilowatt hours can be stacked per home. The Powerpack, however, is intended to scale up all the way to maximum industrial usage.
Musk has a stake in a California solar power company called Solar City — but has lined up a number of installation partners around the country including Treehouse, Solar Edge and Green Mountain Power.
These partners will also lease the Powerwall so that consumers don't have to pay the $3,500 cost up front. Musk says the Powerwall is designed to be installed in "under an hour," so labor costs should be minimal.
The product will also be launched in Germany, a solar-friendly country, before the end of the year, Musk said.
For the technically minded, here's a list of specs on the Powerwall:
Mounting: Wall Mounted Indoor/Outdoor
Inverter: Pairs with growing list of inverters
Energy: 7kWh or 10kWh
Continuous Power: 2kW
Peak Power: 3kW
Round Trip Efficiency: >92%
Operating Temperature Range: -20C (-4F) to 43C (110F)
Warranty: 10 years
Dimensions: H: 1300mm W: 860mm D:180mm
By Chris Taylor (

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