Can you build a career doing odd jobs from online marketplaces?: Best of the Web

Online marketplaces (such as Freelancer and 99designs in Australia or TaskRabbit, Postmates, and Airbnb in the US) have been subject to tremendous hype in recent years.

According to their proponents, these online marketplaces represent a massive transformative shift in the labour market. Instead of the traditional relationship between employer and employee, these websites claim to create a new class of entrepreneurial sole traders who compete to win contracts and satisfy customers.

But is it really true? Can you make a decent living doing odd jobs from online marketplaces? Over at FastCompany, Sarah Kessler decided to find out:

The only way to find out whether the tech world’s solution for the poor job market and income inequality had the answer was to put it to the test. For four weeks this winter, spread out over a six-week period to avoid the holidays, I hustled for work in the gig economy. Technically I was undercover, but I used my real name and background, and whenever asked, I readily shared that I was a journalist. (Alas, people were all too willing to accept that a writer was a perfect candidate for alternative sources of income.) I have changed the names of anyone who did not know, when I was speaking to them, that I was working on this story.

The truth of life as part of the emerging online marketplace economy – both good and bad – makes for fascinating reading.

Is there hope for HTC?

This week, Taiwanese tech giant HTC released its latest flagship smartphone, the HTC One M8.

The company is known for its excellent design and build quality. However, as Dan Seifert from The Verge explains, it’s been a tough ride of late for the smartphone maker:

Four years ago, HTC was at the top of its game. It had successfully transitioned from a white label smartphone pioneer to a well-known brand. The EVO 4G was making waves on the market, ushering in the era of broadband data and big screens. It had strong relationships with every major carrier, and was the premier Android smartphone manufacturer taking on Apple. By the end of 2010, it had ridden its wave of success to take 20 percent of the US smartphone market, beating out even RIM (which was still a major industry force at the time) [Research in Motion, the former trading name of BlackBerry] and claiming the top spot in America.

The cause of HTC’s slip from the top spot in the early Android market was the seemingly unstoppable rise of South Korean tech giant Samsung:

But then Samsung happened. Beginning in 2011 with the Galaxy S II, and continuing through 2012 and 2013, Samsung flooded the smartphone market with devices and brand recognition at every price point. It especially hammered the premium market where HTC’s smartphones were riding high. Samsung accompanied the product blitz with massive marketing campaigns that continue to this day — from the Oscars to the Super Bowl, there really isn’t far you can go without having a Samsung ad thrown in your face.

By the end of 2013, HTC’s market share had tumbled down well below 10 percent, and the company had posted its first ever quarterly loss.

The real challenge for HTC is how well it can adapt to a post-Samsung smartphone industry. Can they do it?

NSA as tech incubator

Over the past year, a series of leaks by former US defence contractor Warren Snowden about the US National Security Agency has opened up a big debate about online surveillance by the intelligence community.

The debate has bought discussion about online security and data gathering into the mainstream.

According to Antonio Regalado in the MIT Technology Review, there is one organisation in the US that’s set to profit from this debate: The NSA itself.

A blistering public debate surrounds the NSA’s secret eavesdropping programs (see “Spying Is Bad for Business”). But what’s less well known is that the agency actively patents inventions and contributes to open-source projects, and that its employees occasionally—so far, very occasionally—emerge from secrecy to create spinoff companies.

Many of the most basic technologies we take for granted everyday emerged from US defence and intelligence programs, such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). These have included everything from mobile phones, to graphical user interfaces, and even the internet itself.

As with other bodies in the intelligence community, Regalado points out the NSA is obligated to commercialise its research:

Like other federal agencies, the NSA is compelled by law to try to commercialize its R&D. It employs patent attorneys and has a marketing department that is now trying to license inventions like tamper-­proof bags, secure manhole covers, and a “dispersion system” to make sure shredded documents can’t be pieced back together. One startup, Integrata, based in Maryland, exclusively licensed a patent on how to detect intruders on wireless networks.

Given the hostile reaction to the NSA on open source websites such as Slashdot, it’s a little amusing to read the agency is actually a big fan of open source technology:

Like other big-data projects, the NSA team’s system, called Accumulo, was built on top of open-source code because “you don’t want to have to replicate everything yourself,” says Fuchs. But participating in the open-source community wasn’t easy. When it came up with improvements, Fuchs’s group had to find a third party to suggest a change without mentioning the NSA. That’s why the NSA eventually decided to open-source Accumulo as well. Even though the move presented risks (coders’ names would be known, and they could become targets of foreign surveillance), the NSA concluded that it would benefit if a wider community of software programmers worked on Accumulo.

Say what you will about the NSA, it certainly has produced a range of interesting start-ups in fields such as wireless monitoring, to geospatial intelligence and enterprise databases.

How big data helped a US state cut emergency room visits by 10%

While the marketing potential of big data has often been discussed, what is far less often examined is the possibilities to save costs. Karen Weise at Businesweek examines the US state of Washington’s experience using information to help doctors and hospitals make better, cheaper, healthcare decisions:

A state legislator, Representative Eileen Cody, urged detente instead of more legal fighting. After she got everyone to agree to compromise, the state, hospitals, and physicians quickly developed and adopted what they refer to as the “Seven Best Practices” (their capitalization, not mine). The idea was that if doctors in the ER had more information about patients and could pass their findings to future clinicians, patients could get help though outpatient—and cheaper—care.

The state required hospitals to adopt a new database, Emergency Department Information Exchange. As soon as patients register at an ER, their names are sent to the database; within minutes, it responds with a list of, and details about, any recent ER visits. “By the time they get your vital signs, we’ve already got a fax back,” says Schlicher.

The program has already achieved its key objectives, slashing emergency room visits in the state by 10%:

ER visits by Medicaid patients fell by 10 percent in the program’s first year, and the rate of ER visits that resulted in non-acute diagnosis decreased more than 14 percent. Overall, the state says its Medicaid ER costs fell $33.7 million in the 2013 fiscal year. Because other changes to ERs were made at the time, the state says it can’t definitively attribute all the savings to this effort.

While your business might not be in the healthcare industry, it’s certainly worth examining how the smart use of big data can help organisations to save costs.

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