Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Automating Interactions

I run a website for my home town. Its basically an events calendar plus some basic community information. I'm trying to raise awareness of events and opportunities there. The the least I can do for the town I grew up in, a town that has interesting things to offer, but a town that faces a steady, continued population decline.

Quick aside: population decline is a very tough nut to crack, but I think I'm onto something here. In my (as yet) unqualified opinion you can stop the bleeding by carefully controlling perception. Its non-trivial, but possible, even for a small group. Point being, I should write more about solving this. I think I will.

A few problems arise when you want to raise visibility of things already in motion.

1) "You Shall Not Pass!", Gatekeepers are suspect to your activities.

That's a nice way of saying that there are people out there with vulnerable fifedoms that they'd hate for you to wreck. Suggest a technology solution that has even the chance of undermining their tiny kingdom, and they'll balk and label you a trouble-maker.

Solution: become the secretary of the gatekeeper. That is, let them stay hard in the loop.

In my case, the gate-keeper tried to come up with lots of reasons why technology wasn't the answer, though clearly, it would improve things quite a bit.

2) "Not Invented Here", No one wants another solution to a problem that they feel like they have already solved.

Basically, if pen and paper are working, then why mess with it? Lets ignore that vital information is locked in there and cannot be easily distributed without leveraging technology.

Solution: Involve the process they are already using.

Are they using email to communicate/coordinate things? Maybe if you involve that medium, you can take advantage of that.

3) I don't want to be YOUR secretary.

Even if you have a whiz-bang app that gives joy to millions, very few people within existing groups are going to want to commit to funneling the bits of joy into your system on a regular basis. They want you to have to work and earn the flow of information you've started, and they aren't going to be the one that milks your cash cow for you.

Solution: Automation.

If I'm honest with you right now, I will admit that I don't have the time to spend supporting even this little website for my hometown, but I need those gatekeepers and knowledge-holders to believe that I believe this is important enough to devote a considerable amount of time to.

So, I've automated my interaction with these folks. They (hopefully) believe I am in the loop, constantly nagging them for information, spending my sweet free time to extract very small amounts of value from them.(small value, that is, in the grand scheme of things). In reality, they reply to my automated emails and I automatically ship the grunt work off to very helpful people elsewhere in the world (in the US, even) who are putting in the information I need in exchange for a few nickles. It works for them, it works for me.

Are those folks clever? Yes, they are, but we often take at face-value the reality we are given unless we have reason to believe that there is something wrong. That's why I have to keep the automation very fresh, even at scale.

Lots of developers automate data collection by scraping content from websites. Some of the best data, however, is still under lock and key. You must be willing to do some social engineering up front to unlock the data, and after that, you can automate.

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