Friday, May 23, 2014

On Love

This week I was engulfed by the Black Keys' new album, specifically 10 Lovers, and surprised by coming across this photo on my drive.

Serendipitously, they go well together.


Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Case for Free Wi-Fi

 As a young professional who is able to invest some of her extra funds in travel, I've visited a variety of destinations. From rural to cosmopolitan, each trip is unique but what remains constant is free access to the web.

I've been more than surprised with Wi-Fi service in European beaches or remote African hostels; equally disappointed with unreliable networks in different major international airports or high-end hotels in South America. Perhaps it was the timing or the weather or the country's economy and/or infrastructure that made it a possibility or a torture to connect to the Internet. Whatever the reason may be, local and federal governments should join the free Wi-Fi revolution for a variety of reasons.

Free Wi-Fi is not just for tourists anymore.  In urban areas, where Internet service is expensive or even non-existent, residents can benefit from access to the web to search for jobs, access school-related or educational content, download maps, community information or bank statements and healthcare forms. There are some who argue that the investment in free Wi-Fi can lead to people wasting time rather than utilizing their browsing effectively. While the argument may be valid it is also very biased. Just because some consumers can afford their own high-speed Internet service to read Buzzfeed at leisure it does not mean those who cannot pay for the same luxury should be given half the stick. If criminal activity is the concern, service providers could explore a capability of blocking certain content or websites. The goal is to provide leverage, so that the residents with no access to the web can get up to speed and trained in how to use a computer and get web-based skills, such as search engine researching, file sharing and email writing, that are  requirements in today's office workforce.

Small businesses can also benefit from offering free Wi-Fi and not footing the bill. Compared to Starbucks or other chain establishments where Wi-Fi is expected, local mom and pop ventures may not have the funds to pay for web services for their patrons. It can seem cheap but when considering the rising costs of rent, supplies, salaries and insurance, Wi-Fi as a must item can be overlooked by business owners. Imagine then how easy and helpful it can be for that local shop to say to customers, "you can connect to free city-wide Wi-Fi here." Businesses and customers are happy and the city looks good. All in all a grand slam for this sector. What might be of concern is the funding for free city-wide wireless services. How, after all, can cities afford such a large investment? Many global models allow users to get free Wi-Fi access for 10 to 30 minutes, enough to check a reservation or access directions. In other models telecom companies sponsor the service by claiming a Wi-Fi network name or asking users to watch an ad prior to access. In my opinion I think the option of having companies sponsor free wireless services makes sense. They can advertise and get good neighbor points. If they want to foster an even better image then their ads can raise awareness about a cause or charity they support. Throw the PR teams a bone! What is extremely annoying is when the two models are merged. Example: A connection-less person is trying to access the web for something important, like checking credit card balance, but spends half of the allotted time logging in to the free service and putting up with adverts, then working to beat the clock. While it's understandable that free Wi-Fi is free, making users jump through hoops to get some service is simply tacky.

Ta-da! Of course we must consider tourism. After all, I did begin this piece speaking about the places around the world where I have gotten good or bad Wi-Fi connections. As more and more millenials continue to travel, work abroad and expand their networks internationally, web accessibility is a necessity- not an amenity. This will become more true as younger generations, who grew up 100 percent connected compared to Gen Y, enter college and introduce us to the next wave of global web service expectations. Let's not get carried away with the future for now; the point is that as citizens of the world, young adults want to continue communicating despite the border or time zone they are in on any given day. On the flip side, baby boomers are much more active online as well. A 2013 survey by the Pew showed that 43 percent of people age 65 and older use social-networking sites. This group is also growing its online shopping habits and general information consumption. Blame it on their kids or grandchildren but boomers want Wi-Fi too, if not for life survival while abroad then for entertainment when enjoying golden years trips. Free Wi-Fi makes any destination more marketable, and forward thinking tourism boards are making sure they expand their services while promoting what is already available now. 

Here in the motherland, New York and Boston were recently featured in the news for offering free Wi-fi across areas of their cities. While there are connectivity issues to keep in mind, such as weather, location and a limited amount of bandwidth, the effort is still commendable. New York will be using old city payphones as Wi-Fi access points, which means thousands of access points, and Boston obtained grants to establish and use it's own fiber optic network.

 It isn't hard to assume we will see more of these efforts replicated across cities in America and the rest of the world. As well as witness improved services in the places that are already set up for free Wi-Fi services. What needs to take place is faster implementation and the understanding that offering this service should not be seen as a burden by companies or governments, but as an investment.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Travel Woes: Consulate Edition

Massachusetts is a state with much to offer to tourists from foreign lands or neighboring states. However, as of late, residents have been exposed to increased air travel options to support tourism outside of our home state.

Starting with nonstop service to Tokyo with Japan Airlines in 2012 and continuing with the expected nonstop service to Beijing with Hainan Airlines this June. As the Globe has reported, "Logan has 36 international destinations, up from 26 a decade ago; the number of international travelers using Logan during that time has increased about 20 percent." In order to fit the increase in passenger rates, the airport has gone as far as expanding Terminal B. All of these changes, highly supported by Governor Patrick, are commendable but still insufficient.

In order to promote new destinations or encourage residents to visit their motherlands, foreign nations- or the official representatives of a foreign government- must welcome the idea too.

Just a week before a year-long planned trip to Peru is set to begin, a dear family friend, and law-abiding, tax-paying American resident, is still unsure if he will be "allowed" to visit the land of the Incas. At the beginning of this year he visited the Peruvian Consulate to ask for a visa, because he still holds a Salvadorian passport. He was told it was too early to request it, that he should return to purchase it two weeks before his trip.

Fast-forward to mid-April when he did what he was told, but only to receive a rude and discriminatory questioning by the consulate staff. After giving a brief description of his trip, an anniversary gift he is enjoying with family for two weeks, he was asked a series of questions about his job, his income level, his personal relationship status and his non-existent criminal past.

"How much was this trip?" "Who paid for it?" "You don't earn enough to pay for this trip, how can we make sure you won't stay in Peru?" While I understand the necessity of these questions, it is demoralizing and incredible to imagine other interested travelers endure this treatment. It is also hard to believe that consulates truly think American citizens and residents want to enter their respective countries and stay there illegally. 

American citizens or residents are not "better" than other nations at all, so I am not assuming we would not like to go live in foreign countries. What I argue is how real would the possibility of a 20-year resident, in the verge of citizenship, giving up what he has worked for so long, be? This can become a separate post, on migratory woes Americans must experience too, but I hope you can see my point in that a Latin American seen as a danger to visit Latin America by fellow Latin Americans seems senseless. If my friend had committed a crime and wished to escape the U.S., his cover would be a little blown by the fact that he would travel with his spouse, children, son-in-law and friends who are all American citizens and need to return to work after their 2-week vacation too. If the Peruvian consulate thought they were all going to Lima to throw him a grand exile party then I'd be upset I wasn't invited.

Consulates have to worry about drug or human trafficking, tax evasion, and more. It is completely logical. In hopes of appeasing these fears my friend also provided months-worth of bank statements, employee records, even tenancy contracts over three additional visits, only to hear that a Peruvian visa was not a right but a "privilege" people earned and the consulate is unsure if he should receive it. After the two-week ordeal, the consulate did offer him a six-month visa- barely five days before his scheduled departure.

It is very wrong to assume that Massachusetts only has blue passport holders. US Census Bureau estimates for 2012 showed that of the state's population of 6,645,303, 10 percent were Hispanic or Latino alone. A lower rate than the national average but still significant. Significant enough to engage in conversations with area consulates who can help residents visit South or Latin America for personal or tourism purposes. Let's remember, there are also residents from Asia and the Middle East, Africa and Europe who would like to take advantage of these new traveling options as well.

Not only that, if travel to the Middle East and Asia, and perhaps Mexico once again, are lauded as opportunities for people to reconnect or explore and commerce to grow, our local government and leaders must think of the solo traveler and the small business as well, not just the tour groups and million-dollar corporations that face very little if/and/buts to travel, when establishing new tourism business.

Our airport has welcomed the challenge of augmented service. Our state representatives must work with foreign nation representatives in Massachusetts to make sure we can take advantage of them.

A Social Leader

Within the past three years more government agencies embraced social media for public relations and communication purposes. You don’t have to look far to find examples, from the TSA’s uber popular Instagram and fellow accounts or President Obama’s Facebook page (and Bo's viral image)  to the CDC and FEMA. Social media use in government offices is both popular and beneficial because there are no media or third parties diluting the messages these public service offices are trying to share. Here at home our new mayor understands that as well. 

I’ll go on a limb to claim that Marty Walsh is the most socially active Boston politician to-date. Yes I am including former Senator Brown and City Councilor Tito Jackson, amongst others who are very active online. Do I have scientific proof? No. How can I make such a claim then? I’m basing my statement on virtual witnessing and interactions with the mayor and his comm team. And, am I aware that Mayor Menino was quite active on social too? Of course, whoddaya think‘ya talking to?

Mayor Menino lay the social groundwork that Mayor Walsh is using to become what, in my opinion, every politician in America should be: a social leader. Here are three lessons we can learn from his digital campaigns, even if we don’t work in a government agency.

From his first week in office the new mayor surrounded himself with locals who were socially active in the real and virtual world. His chief of staff, 29-year-old Daniel Arrigg Koh, was the former general manager for HuffPost Live and his chief of policy, 50-year-old Joyce Linehan, knows a thing or two about getting attention, as she’s been a long-time music promoter and publicist for Boston art organizations. The majority of staffers in his transition team are also active on social platforms, like Felix Arroyo or Rosanne Foley. Walsh understood since the beginning of his campaign that in order to have the upper hand he needs to be available anytime to deliver his message, and he has continued this approach as he establishes his office.

Cream of the crop
Some of Walsh's best efforts have been Facebook and Twitter conversations. On January 23 his first Twitter chat took place using #askMJW and shortly after, on February 10, his first Facebook Q&A happened. Right off the get-go Walsh established expectations on transparency and availability on his own terms. To any marketer or public relations professional this is an excellent example of a well executed campaign. Add to it the live-shots of the mayor responding to questions and comments by himself, which earned Walsh even more credibility, and you can imagine how his staffers felt on those specific days... I’d like to imagine Rocky’s Eye of the Tiger was playing on the background.  By having something as easy and simple as a chat on the most popular social networks so early in his term, Mayor Walsh already expanded on Mayor Menino’s “of the people for the people” mantra. Lesson to be learned: keep it simple! A politician, like a brand, needs to be visible and reachable easily. 

A level above
To please the rest of us cliquey social-savants, Walsh and his staff have resorted to video, images and a lot technology press coverage, too. My favorite effort has been the Vine and Vimeo videography, separate from YouTube, to promote services or track the mayor's first term. They further humanize the Dorchester local. I would like to imagine Walsh’s team didn’t just decide to go with video services that work, they chose video services with a specific following and reputation. Vine is the popular 6-second social video app that’s become famous for amazing animation and stop-motion videos that are now even up for Shorty awards.  While Vimeo is respected amongst videophiles and the art community for not being as commercial as YouTube. The videos created reflect this consciousness of grassroots effort meets Brahmin expectations that make them fun, easy and interesting to watch. There is more room to expand on the video and image front and I’m looking forward to the Walsh team’s creations. By trying the platforms that are not as famous the mayor not only expands his reach but also his image of inclusion. Lesson to be learned: When you are trying to reach constituents, or customers, think of all the tools to try and ask yourself if you can utilize them.

Data love
The third element of Walsh’s digital life as mayor is his use of analytics and real-time tracking. Whether it is for security or customer service, Walsh is embracing big data, big time. So much so that he recently had monitors installed in his City Hall office to live-view the 911 calls and emergency dispatches of the day, see word clouds for popular topics in Boston and check traffic or pothole issues being solved by public works departments. This is a significant step-above our beloved Menino, who wasn’t even a fan of computers on his desk. The new mayor won’t be able to know everything that is happening in the city immediately. It will take more time to foster relationships and build bridges to get information from the “inside” regardless of him being on the inside (Boston politics for 'ya.) However, showing interest on the issues happening in real-time around the city, and how they compare to a week or month or year before, is incredibly valuable. In order to make tangible change as a mayor, or a business owner, you need to know your data. Understand what your past looked like and how it has carried you into the present in order to implement ideas that will solve issues for the long-term.

I’ll admit that Mayor Walsh was not my ideal candidate, his stance on education made me doubt him and it still concerns me. Yet, now that he is in office I am becoming a fan. The active use of digital channels to communicate, include and monitor will help the mayor move forward with his agenda. It will also help us continue to learn from his administration's trials, successes and possible errors while shining a light on Beantown.