Weekend news round-up: Tech firms not being neighbourly, Ford’s autonomous car

16 Dec 2013

In our round-up of the weekend’s tech news, we find that tech firms make poor urbanists as San Francisco, California, has discovered, Ford has unveiled its first autonomous car, and Twitter is testing new location features.

Urban planning and relationships for geeks

The New York Times took an interesting twist on the whole debate over tech firms taking over San Francisco and driving rents sky high, pointing out that while tech firms talk the talk about gentrification of districts, they are not very neighbourly, don’t mix with the locals, don’t help local businesses and quite frankly make poor urbanists.

The whole appeal for cities moving tech firms into the neighbourhood is that the workers would spend locally and boost the local economy. Instead, overpaid young techies are whisked about in private buses and prefer their own company in their own canteens rather than mixing with locals or other techies in nearby coffee shops or restaurants.

“Tech companies are scrambling to move into cities – there are rumours that Google is going to move here, to San Francisco, from Mountain View. VISA and Akamai have ditched the suburbs to come here. Tech tenants now fill 22pc of all occupied office space in San Francisco – and represented a whopping 61pc of all office leasing in the city last year. But they might as well have stayed in their suburban corporate settings for all the interacting they do with the outside world. The oft-referred-to ‘serendipitous encounters’ that supposedly drive the engine of innovation tend to happen only with others who work for the same company. Which is weird.”

Now what will they do with all that data?

The Atlantic carried a piece on how the US is coming to terms with the realisation that the US’ National Security Agency (NSA) is indeed harvesting their mobile data – some 5bn records a day.

“Put simply, everyone who feared that the NSA collects location data on Americans was correct. But they didn’t learn that back when they expressed those fears. 

“Quite the contrary. On multiple occasions, Obama Administration officials spoke about the collection of cellphone location data in ways that were often technically accurate but wildly deceptive. In so doing, they succeeded in confusing the surveillance debate and creating the inaccurate impression that location data wasn’t being collected.”

How big is the leak?

The New York Times reported that NSA officials may never know how much data former CIA contractor Edward Snowden actually leaked because the Hawaii office where Snowden worked had older IT systems.

“Investigators remain in the dark about the extent of the data breach partly because the NSA facility in Hawaii where Mr Snowden worked – unlike other NSA facilities – was not equipped with up-to-date software that allows the spy agency to monitor which corners of its vast computer landscape its employees are navigating at any given time.

“Six months since the investigation began, officials said Mr Snowden had further covered his tracks by logging into classified systems using the passwords of other security agency employees, as well as by hacking firewalls installed to limit access to certain parts of the system.”

Who’s tweeting near you?

The Wall Street Journal’s Digits blog reported that Twitter is testing a new feature that lets users know if someone on their followers list is tweeting nearby.

“The short-messaging service appears to be testing a new timeline for its mobile app, called ‘Nearby.’ It shows recent nearby tweets, whether you follow the tweeter or not.

“The Nearby timeline has appeared occasionally in recent days on the phones of users who allow Twitter to see and use their location. The apparent test could be part of an effort to prompt more users to share their location. That would make the network more locally relevant, in the manner of Foursquare. It also would allow Twitter to offer advertisers more precise targeting capabilities.”

Ford’s autonomous car

Wired reported that Ford has thrown its hat into autonomous car ring with the debut of its Automated Fusion Hybrid Research Vehicle, the latest in a series of steps the automaker is taking to realise its grand vision of transportation in 2025.

“Replacing the massive, spinning LIDAR units on current autonomous vehicles are four smaller scanners poking out of the roof like a quartet of antennae. Linked together, the LIDAR units compose a 360-degree, three-dimensional view of the surroundings, processing the information and allowing the vehicle to accelerate, brake, and steer without driver intervention.

“But first, Ford is working on vehicle-to-vehicle communication that alerts drivers about congestion, accidents, and weather up ahead. After those systems are implemented, Ford expects adaptive cruise control, steering, and V2V systems to allow packs of cars to join a road train on highways, with the eventual goal of creating a highly automated – not ‘driverless’ – car.”

The Instagram feature that is very Snapchat

Ars Technica reported on a feature within Instagram’s new Direct service that allows users to delete their messages from other users’ phones.

“Unlike Snapchat, however, Instagram attempts to encourage the permanence of the photo by generating a comment thread below it, as with photos posted to a user’s Instagram feed. This makes an Instagram Direct inbox seem, in sum, closer to a Facebook photo album. But what makes Instagram Direct different is that the sender remains in control of the existence of the photo even after it’s been sent.

“The experience of accidentally sending an e-mail or message, either in error or anger, is a familiar one. Actual opportunities to undo a message are rare – Gmail offers a brief ‘undo’ option for sent e-mails, for instance, and certain types of Microsoft Exchange server setups facilitate this. But with internet messaging, generally, once it’s out there, it’s out there.”

San Francisco image via Shutterstock

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years