Meetup adds ‘Chip in’ donation feature today

Perhaps you know already about Meetup.com, the site that anyone can organize any group on any topic. I have not been an organizer but have attended numerous meetups in St. Louis, and used the site to research people that I wanted to connect with when I traveled to other cities around the world in the past. Today Meetup organizers are getting a new incentive: the ability to add a “chip in” button so that members can donate cash to the group.

“We want to make it easy for supportive members to chip in on costs and help make Meetup groups even better,” according to a post on their blog this morning As of today, any group or event organizer can quickly add this feature. It is a pretty bold experiment and perhaps the widest expansion of crowdsourcing to date. To give you an idea of the scope of this work, there are nearly 200,000 meetups around the world organizing half a million events every month.

contributions 2The way it works is simple: a Chip In button on the Meetup home page will bring up a dialog box asking for your contribution, as shown here. You enter your payment information and you are done. It works on both web browsers and phone apps.

Meetups are a pretty low-budget affair, for the most part. Many organizers pay for the costs of running the meeting (beer and pizza are the usual enticements) out of their own pockets, or else try to find a corporate sponsor (such as the company who is hosting the meeting at their facilities), but the Chip In feature formalizes this and makes it easier to raise funds. About 2,000 Meetups have already been using the feature and have found it very helpful, as you can imagine. While Meetup.com won’t reveal how much money has been collected, I hear it is quite impressive.

My long-time colleague and friend Tristan Louis has been heading up this effort and he told me, “We’re trying to carefully introduce ways to help the organizers without requiring them to ask the uncomfortable questions surrounding money. We know that organizers often get stuck being the ones paying for the pizza and we want to change that dynamic by having everyone chip in.” Contributions aren’t mandatory, but we’ll see if the psycho-dynamics of the meetup changes as a result of them.

Building your own early warning system

 

What do a bowl of yellow M&Ms have to do with the Distant Early Warning or DEW line? Both are ways to provide early warning systems of sorts. Let me explain.

The DEW line was a big deal back in its day. The idea was to be notified of any incoming Soviet bombers that were going to take us out by flying over the pole. The system of radar installations stretched across northern Canada and Alaska back in the cold war when both countries were stockpiling thousands of nuclear bombs. It would just take a few minutes for a bomber or a missile to reach our country, hence having a series of detection points closer to the source could provide a few minutes’ warning of an imminent attack.

The same could be said for the bowl of M&Ms. A friend of mine is a musician and explained the typical concert contract riders that specified a particular color of candy present in the dressing rooms or backstage. It wasn’t because the musicians were being prima donnas, as I always thought. “They wrote these riders as an early warning system. If a band showed up at a venue and saw the wrong color of candy, they knew they had better get out to the stage and spend some more rehearsal time. If the venue didn’t read the contract, it meant that other things probably wouldn’t be right for their show. It had nothing to do with their personal preferences,” he told me. Snopes quotes David Lee Roth of Van Halen, who put on some very complex shows, here: “If I saw a brown M&M in that bowl . . . well, line-check the entire production. Guaranteed you’re going to arrive at a technical error. They didn’t read the contract. Guaranteed you’d run into a problem.”

Great idea, I thought. Those old rockers were on to something after all.

I thought about this as I attended the annual Teradata Partners conference last week in Nashville. I have been coming to this show for several years and find it very interesting, mainly because so many IT managers present what they are doing at dozens of sessions. This year’s show was no different, and I heard a lot of folks talk about they have developed their own early warning systems that they have put into place.

For example, what about tracking what happens to your worst customers? These are people that you want to know about, and try to fix their problem before they actually leave you for your competitors. Wouldn’t it nice if you could be notified about some issue in time to change their minds? That is one of the things that Teradata excels at with its various data warehousing and analytic tools.

One British clothing retailer has gone so far to set up its systems so that it can tell when an online shopper is calling its call center trying to complete an order. While that can be borderline creepy, it can help increase revenues and customer satisfaction rates too. Wells Fargo Bank has a number of executive dashboards that are used to track what banking products are used by their customers, as a way to see who isn’t really engaged.

Interestingly, the same systems can also be used to track what is going on with your best customers too.

So whether it is a bowl of candy or some multimillion dollar systems, think about ways that you can detect early trends and keep your customers.

Solution Providers for Retail blog: How 7-Eleven Built Its Digital Guest Engagement Program From Scratch

Two years ago, the convenience store chain 7-Eleven had no data warehouse, no smartphone app for its customers, and had a loyalty program that still used paper punch cards. Since then it has built the beginnings of a digital customer engagement program. At the recent Teradata Partners conference in Nashville this week, they described how they did it.

All it took was finding the right VAR and spending some significant cash.

Well, not quite. As you can imagine, there was a lot more involved.

You can read my post for the Solution Providers for Retail blog here.

ITworld: How to get the most value from a data dashboard

When it comes to convincing your boss of the value of a data dashboard, nothing works better than when you can save money as a result of a trend that you visualized. This is what one of the data-driven marketing staff did for the Texas Rangers baseball team; their dashboard saved about $45,000 in annual costs.

This and more stories about data dashboards from the Tableau conference earlier this month in Seattle can be found in my article on ITWorld here.

#Strangeloop: How sexist are rap lyrics?

jayI went to a computer conference to learn about how sexist rap lyrics are. What makes this all the more remarkable is that the session was given by a woman, Julie Lavoie here in St. Louis at the annual Strangeloop programming conference.

Actually, it kinda makes sense: the idea is to parse the entire corpus of lyrics (there is a site called rapgenius that has compiled this information for hundreds of songs) and do some natural language processing to see what is being said. It was very entertaining, even though I know almost nothing about rap music. (That is Jay Z above, BTW.)

As you can probably guess, the most common words mentioned in rap songs are cuss words, and other epithets that I hesitate to use here and run up my spam scores. But Lavoie started with an interesting hypothesis: what if she searched for a particular word that rhymes with witch and is used as a common term for women. Do the rappers who have a sexist rep use it more often in their songs? How about men vs. women rappers? What about rappers from different geographies or styles of music? (Yes, that was something I never knew.)

Well, she found out that things weren’t so simple: lots of rappers use this particular epithet, and many have far worse things to say about women that are hard for a Python script to process automatically. Do you look for the association of particular action verbs with particular nouns? The mind boggles.

Lavoie at one point had to temporarily stop her analysis, because it was getting her depressed seeing the negative words that were bubbling up to the top of most often used list. But she is a trooper (and also a big fan of rap music, which is why she started the project to begin with). The project got her thinking more about how to characterize sexist lyrics and gave her fuel for further explorations. Granted, she could have chosen French literature or modern poetry, but she likes rap so that is where she focused her efforts.

This is just the sort of thing that you can find at Strangeloop: interesting tech stuff, presented by people that you probably never heard of mixed with the leading lights of major programming languages and open source projects. If the show isn’t on your fall calendar, it should be. Plus, you can come visit me in St. Louis too!

Holding office hours for your end users

I was at the Tableau Software annual user conference in Seattle this week, and one takeaway was an idea that I heard from one of the presenters about holding “office hours” to support your end users. It is an old idea that may be worth revisiting.

Back when I toiled in the IT end user computing fields for Megalith Insurance, we had several staff for our own phone-based hotline to support the insurance agents around the country. That was great for them, because we couldn’t really make house calls. But we had several thousand users in our three office towers in downtown Los Angeles that were only an elevator ride away. These folks had to call us when they were in need or distress and wait for us to get to their offices. We never really thought about holding office hours where the users could drop in, frankly because we didn’t want them to know where we worked. Maybe there was some other reason, I was never quite sure. It was probably because back then we had mainframe programmers in abundance, and no one ever ventured into their holy of holies offices either.

But that was then. Today we all work in bullpens and people bring their bikes and dogs into work. And there are a lot of end-user oriented tools besides spreadsheets and word processors.

And when it comes to a visualization tool such as Tableau, seeing is literally believing. Having a steady hand and someone who knows their way around the interface can make a big difference in speeding up the learning curve for a newbie.

mod2At the Tableau conference, I spoke to Krystal St. Julien, a data analyst with eCommerce retailer ModCloth.com. She comes from a academic biomedical research background, which is why she calls what she offers “office hours.” Only instead of students waiting outside her office door, she schedules her time with Google Calendar. It is working well for her, not just on an efficiency level but on a user empowerment level too. She helps her users over learning speed bumps and gets an entire team up and running with Tableau in record time. (An interesting side note: all of her data analysis department are mostly women, with the exception of the boss. Some lesson to be learned there, too.)

Maybe it is time we bring back this concept into wider use. Who knows, it could help some IT shops over their image problems.