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Dec. 21, 2011, 7 p.m.

Amy Webb: Big data, mobile payments, and identity authentication will be big in 2012

The digital strategist shares the big tech trends we can expect to emerge in the coming year.
Editor’s Note: We’re wrapping up 2011 by asking some of the smartest people in journalism what the new year will bring.

Next up is Amy Webb, the head of the digital ideas and strategy agency Webbmedia Group, weighing in with predictions for the big tech trends of 2012.

Big Data

Information is everywhere, and more than any previous year in our history, 2012 will be the year of data. We’re recording our daily activity with BodyMedia arm bands and syncing our biometrics with our Android phones. Hacker-journalists are converting huge datasets for use by everyday newsroom reporters. Hyper-creative data visualization teams, such as JESS3, are creating stunning charts and graphs appealing to the non-geeky set. Untold amounts of healthcare, government, personal-location, business, academic and transportation data can be mined for research as well as to generate answers about our efficiency, effectiveness and productivity. In 2012, we anticipate seeing a number of new initiatives that attempt to crack the big data nut.

OR (object recognition)

Oblong Industries recently unveiled its g-speak spatial operating environment, which was the culmination of three decades of research at MIT and uses object recognition. You may already be familiar with Oblong’s work, which was featured in the film Minority Report. g-speak combines a “gestural i/o, recombinant networking, and real-world pixels” to meld humans with information displays. You may not buy a g-speak environment for your living room in 2012, but do expect to see OR in mobile apps and devices. High-end sensor processing, enhanced cameras and troves of databases will enable you to snap a photo and instantly glean information about the person sitting next to you on the train, the ingredients in your entree or even the designer of your friend’s new shoes.

Graphic Interfaces

In 2011, we saw a number of new graphic interfaces. The New York Times debuted its “magic mirror,” which uses Microsoft Kinect to recognize a users face and then becomes a morning bathroom companion. It can recommend what shirt to wear with what tie, let you search the web, check the weather, read your email and access your prescription medication information. Japanese tablet manufacturer Wacom released its Inkling, allowing graphic artists to use a special pen and receiver clip to draw on any surface. Tether the clip to a computer, and everything that was drawn can be imported into just about any image editing program. We expect to see more interactive surfaces in the coming year as well as new tools to access them.


Aggregation (even personalized aggregation) no longer solves our information overload problem. In 2010, we saw the debut of Flipboard and the reintroduction of Pulse, which are dynamic content curation apps. Now we’re seeing topic-focused dynamic curation and recommendation built into apps and websites. Some of the players in this space include, Twylah and Storyful. At the end of 2011, Google launched a Flipboard-like topics aggregator, Currents. (It had been code-named Propeller during development.) As much as some news organizations may grumble that basic topics pages don’t drive traffic or serve the user, these newer, dynamically-organized pages that include curation have been tremendously successful. Grouping people and companies together is a great way to keep information organized, and fluid topic pages that continually update help consumers make sense of all the information that’s available. Expect to see a lot of dynamic topic pages — even if they’re called something else — in 2012.

Privacy Concerns

We are uploading millions of photos every day to social networks, and in the process we’re attaching rich data along with them: who’s in the photo, where the photo was taken, even what equipment was used. Combined with social check-in services, which continually show our physical locations and who we’re with, a number of clever search tools have emerged that can effortlessly divulge a person’s name, age and interests simply by snapping a photo of his or her face. While sophisticated users have expressed concerns about their privacy, younger mobile and social network users are more and more willing to share everything with everyone. Facebook continues to change its terms of service often, but most users aren’t aware of what personal information is being shared with the outside world. What — if anything — to do about our digital privacy will be an ongoing discussion throughout the next year.


The tech world may seem largely dominated by men, but a cadre of smart, creative women have been hard at work — and often hardly-noticed — leading product development, tech innovation and startups. Groups such as TEDxWomen and advocates like Change the Ratio are working to highlight both successes and inequalities. In 2012, we expect to see more woman receive funding, speaking at conferences, interviewed by mainstream media, judging awards and getting recognition for their many contributions in tech and beyond.

Ethics Concerns and Digital Content

In 2011, there were numerous high-profile ethics questions at major tech/journalism companies. Tech blogger Michael Arrington launched a $20 million venture capital fund that would invest in many of the companies covered by his publication, TechCrunch. Microblogging platform Tumblr, which is used by many in the fashion industry, made news when it sent 16 bloggers to Fashion Week shows at their hosts’ expense. Tumblr was charging brands as much as $350,000 for private events with bloggers, and in return, brands would receive guaranteed product placement within blog posts. The What’s Trending web series on posted a tweet that Steve Jobs had died (well in advance of his actual death), and then issued a snarky response: “Apologies — reports of Steve Job’s [sic] death completely unconfirmed. Live on.” As the media landscape continues to evolve, newsrooms, developers, marketing and sales departments and content producers of all stripes will need to question their activities and discuss what’s appropriate and why. In 2012, will transparency be the new objectivity?

Technology Leads Revolutions

The Arab revolutions in 2011 were enabled because of Facebook, Twitter, text messaging and BlackBerry’s Messenger service. The ease of use of social networks combined with the ubiquity of inexpensive mobile devices has empowered the previously disenfranchised. Due to the success of organized movements in the Middle East, more groups will use mobile phones and social networks to catalyze their own revolutions around the world in the coming year.

Co-Viewing/ Social TV Platforms

More and more people are watching television with a companion device, whether it is a mobile phone, tablet or laptop computer. In the past year, we’ve also see the rise of video broadcasting outside of the set-top box. A number of new services provide a platform meant to be used by traditional and new devices. Flingo, a new platform launched after two solid years of work by the Bittorrent team, allows users to “fling” content between screens. Denso is an iPhone/iPad/Android app that allows users to save video content to an account and then stream on just about any device. In 2012, we will see co-viewing experiences and platforms launch en masse, by independent developers, retailers, news organizations and political groups.

The YouTube Network

Late 2011, YouTube relaunched with not just a new look, but plans for a new business model. In this new video-centric space, YouTube will display channels that could be of interest to you individually, as well as other curated content. During the next year, expect to see YouTube offer original programming initially for the gaming and programmer community offered via the Google TV platform. Internet-connected set-top boxes and the new YouTube approach has the potential to draw away viewers from the traditional networks and over to newer forms of digital content syndication.

Elections Coverage

We are already seeing work done by major broadcasters and news organizations in preparation for the 2012 presidential campaign season. Expect to use your mobile device or laptop to fact-check debates and speeches in real time. Synch your device with live broadcasts to get additional news content from major media brands. Co-viewing experiences that integrate social networks such as Twitter and Facebook will gain widespread use.

Mobile Scanning and OCR

High-end optical character recognition software developer ABBYY shocked many in the tech community when it released a 99-cent iPhone app in 2011. Dubbed TextGrabber, it allows a user to snap a photo, extract the text and then import it into a document that can be edited, copied and even translated. Amazon already lets users take photos of products to search for them on its website, and there will be similar photo and text scanning services meant to support commerce launching in the next few months.

Context-Aware Mobile Apps

With the adoption of the Siri application, iOS 5 mobile phones (Apple only) can now compare location, interests, intentions, schedule, friends, history, likes, dislikes and more to serve content and answers to questions. Siri uses natural language processing, so that a user can simply speak into her phone: find a dinner reservation for four. In return, Siri will locate a restaurant that the user will probably like, suggest three other friends to invite based on shared calendars, and make the reservation through OpenTable. While Siri has 40 years of DARPA research and the work of several universities (Carnegie Mellon, Stanford) powering it, we do anticipate similar context-aware mobile apps coming to market in 2012.

Mobile Payments

Square, the white, square-shaped credit card swiping reader that plugs into an iPhone, is being used by thousands of small businesses and consumers. Square’s Card Case service now lets a user check into a venue with her phone and then pay with a credit or debit card at an iPad-enabled Square Register. Google Wallet allows users to store credit cards and swipe their mobile devices at physical registers. And Silicon Valley startup Naratte is working on its Zoosh product, which uses a ultrasound system on ordinary mobile handsets in order to transmit payments. We expect to see more mobile payments in 2012, if not fewer leather wallets.

Digital Identity Authentication

When Google launched its new social network Plus, it made headlines for requiring users to create accounts with their real names and identities. At the time, Google argued that people behave better when they use their real names — it even went so far as to call Plus not a social network, but a digital identity service. Some are now questioning how and when Google would be using our digital identities. Outside of social media, police departments in the U.S. have started using MORIS, which snaps on to an iPhone and enables officers to scan the irises of alleged criminals. In Brazil, police offers are starting to fit glasses with biometric cameras which can scan 46,000 data points on a face and query a criminal database in real-time. Siri, an application acquired by Apple for the iPhone, can recognize individual voices and infer contextual information based on the user. In 2012, our fingerprints may not matter nearly as much as our eyes, faces, and usernames.

POSTED     Dec. 21, 2011, 7 p.m.
PART OF A SERIES     Predictions for Journalism 2012
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