By Art Hanson on October 21st, 2009
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I completely did away with ‘referral codes’ this morning.
When we launched Nation of Neighbors back in June we wanted to ensure that we didn’t have spammers signing up and sending out reports with our broadcast system. While they never succeeded sending out a spam report on our previous site (Watch Jefferson County), that was only because we were hyper vigilant and limited to a small geographic area. They tried all the time. Ron literally had a full time volunteer job deleting spam. Based on that experience, we built a number of spam control measures into Nation of Neighbors. One of those controls was the ‘referral code’ system.
Here’s how it worked: Rather than allowing prospective members to join immediately, prospective members instead requested a referral. If the prospective member lived within the boundaries of an existing group, the request was shown to existing members who could choose to send the prospective member an invitation. When the prospective member lived in a new area, the invitation was issued by an admin. This barrier to entry was supposed to limit ‘false’ registrations and help community leaders control who got to see and share information in their community (you can still elect to approve all group members in your group’s settings). After all, you know who really lives in your community. We don’t. In reality, our existing communities were already pretty well covered, so Ron and I ended up sending most of the invitations anyway.
Two months ago I changed our system over to ’self-invitation’. You entered your phone number or email address and received a code that you entered on the signup form. I believe that’s still excessive and redundant – 50% of the potential members who requested a referral never returned to sign up. Many of those potential members lived within existing community groups.
Why did we ever require referral codes? In my own words:
This small barrier to entry helps us maintain high quality membership and data. The referral system also helps us avoid ‘members’ who would sign up to post spam. The referral system also helps ensure that we can limit growth to a manageable level and focus on growth at the local level when new community groups are added.
Spam has not been a problem (we currently have 10 times more traffic than Watch Jefferson did without a single spam message to delete) and we have had no problem controlling traffic or ‘growth’. In fact, I wish we had that problem. I should have known better.
To everyone who took the time to fill out the extra forms – please accept my apologies. If there are other barriers to participation that we should know about, please let us know!
By Art Hanson on October 14th, 2009
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We’ve gone through a number of number of ‘catchphrases’ over the past few years. Online Neighborhood Watch, Neighborhood Watch 2.0, Real-Time Community Networking…
I’ve always struggled with boiling down the idea behind Nation of Neighbors (formerly Watch Jefferson) into a single, succinct sentence. Sure it’s about Neighborhood Watch. However, as anyone who’s been part of a successful watch group knows, the real benefits extend far beyond reducing crime. The real benefit is often an improved sense of community because you get to know your neighbors. That’s also the idea behind Nation of Neighbors.
I struggled with this again this morning when I created a short 20 second video in response to a request for videos to support News Challenge grant applications. I ended up describing Nation of Neighbors in under 20 seconds (and anyone who knows me knows that’s a big deal…) by skipping technology and talking about neighbors getting to know each other. Which brings me back to my original point – my favorite catchphrase.
Strength in Communication
My most vivid memory of learning something in grade school is from the second or third grade. I attended a small Amish school at the time. One day a man visited our class carrying a small bundle of sticks. He asked us, a class of approximately 25 students between first and eighth grade, who could break the bundle of sticks. I think we all tried. Finally, an older boy had the idea to untie the bundle and began breaking the sticks one by one. The basic lesson, of course, is that there is strength in numbers. Or that in order to solve a big problem, it can be helpful to break it up into a series of smaller problems. For some reason, that small demonstration had a profound effect on me and I have never forgotten it. I also apply this lesson to how I think about communities and my aspirations for Nation of Neighbors. As we become more and more entangled in the virtual modern world we have created we become less and less involved in the actual communities where we live. Most of us don’t know our neighbors very well, if we’ve ever met them at all. As that social fabric unravels, each individual member of the community becomes more susceptible to failure. To reverse this process, we need to reconnect the individuals – to get them communicating. Whether you do that on your front porch, over the back fence, on Facebook or Nation of Neighbors, it will be a good thing and it will make your community stronger and a better place to live. Communication is vital to our success as humans, whether it’s a pack of hunters, your marriage, government or your community. My hope for Nation of Neighbors is that we can help you have that conversation with your Neighbors – even if it’s about something difficult and sensitive like crime or other community problems. That technology and innovation, while perhaps responsible for the unraveling of our communities, can also be our salvation.
By Art Hanson on October 9th, 2009
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The following question was posted on our News Challenge application page. My answer is too long to fit in the comment section there, so I’m posting it on our blog instead.
This seems like a great concept. I’m just curious how you ensure that the reports of suspicious activity are”legitimate”? I hope this gets funded so that my community can sign up to use it.
Thanks Marsha! That’s a great question. It not only affects Nation of Neighbors, but many other attempts at ‘community’ networking, including several of the other proposed projects on the News Challenge website. There are several kinds of illegitimate reports we need to guard against.
The first, and easiest to identify and avoid, is spam. We relay reports to members in real time via both email and SMS – our report form is publicly available on the internet worldwide. We use multiple public and private blacklists, content filters and our report moderation scheme (reports from first time reporters must be reviewed by a report moderator prior to broadcast) to avoid spam.
False reports are more challenging. We have a filtering algorithm that assigns each incoming report a ‘trust’ index. We’ve developed this index based on reports – both true and untrue – that we’ve received over the past few years. The score is generated based on the content of the report and the users IP address as well as any history the user may have with Nation of Neighbors. This index is shown to the reviewer (for moderated reports) and a low score will push an otherwise unmoderated report into the moderation queue. There’s also the benefit that reports are only sent out locally. False reports are usually relatively easily identified by people actually living in the community and could be removed and the reporter blocked (by IP address) from making further reports.
Unallowed reports also represent a challenge. These are reports that, while possibly truthful, do not fit within the parameters of our mission or the intended purpose of our report system. This category includes things like “my neighbor is a jerk and never cuts his grass” or “my neighbor gave me the finger”. In the case that an established member (whose reports are broadcast immediately) would publish a report like this, they would likely lose their unmoderated reporting status – but that decision would be up to the local community admin – not us.
There’s also the occasional report that never goes public because of privacy concerns or because it might interfere with an investigation. These reports are sent to the appropriate authorities but not published immediately.
Of course, we currently have the advantage of relative obscurity. As our networks expand our report system will become a bigger target and we’ll have to further develop and refine our methods. This is one of the reasons we’re applying to the Knight Foundation for funding.
By Art Hanson on October 8th, 2009
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I checked my email this morning before I had my first cup of coffee. That’s always a mistake and this morning was no exception. The first thing I noticed in my inbox was an email from the IRS with the subject “Notice of Underreported Income”. I did what any honest, law-abiding, tax paying citizen would do – my heart skipped a beat and I panicked. I opened the email and, after the longest few seconds ever, realized that it was a phishing scam. While phishing is not new – anyone with an email account probably gets several a day – this one is particularly insidious. Most phishing email comes from ‘institutions’ you do not actually do business with. Just yesterday, the First Second and Third National Bank of Who Knows Where asked me to ‘Please to Update Nice Customer Data Form’. I didn’t give it a second thought because I don’t have an account there. Everyone has an account with the IRS. What’s more, the whole tax paying process is so complex that we all harbor a fear of having done something wrong. Fortunately, despite the lack of coffee, common sense overcame my panic quickly. The IRS does not contact taxpayers via email, there are numerous spelling and grammar mistakes and the link goes to www.irs.gov.yhhsszz.net (the important part is the yhhsszz.net). If I had clicked the link the site would have tried to get me to install some malicious software on my computer.
The moral here is that no respectable institution you have any business doing business with will send you an email asking you to click a link and fill out a form divulging financial information online. Here are three common sense rules to follow to detect phishing:
- Does the link actually go where it says it’s going to go? Hover over the link with your mouse and look at the link location in your browser’s (or Outlook’s) status bar. If it says it’s from Ebay but the link points to webapp.ebay.badsite.com it’s not really from Ebay. The only part of the URL that’s important for this test is what’s to the immediate left and right of the last ‘.’ – anyone can put ‘ebay’ or ‘bankofamerica’ or ‘irs.gov’ in front of their actual domain name.
- Are there spelling / grammar mistakes? Any legitimate business email will use proper spelling and grammar. Fortunately, this is something the phishers just can’t seem to manage.
- Is the email from someone you do business with, and do they have reason to contact you via email? Ebay will legitimately send you an email invoice asking you to pay for a purchase. Amazon may need you to update your expired credit card. However, your bank will never ask you to fill out an online form giving them your social security number and credit card information.
Better safe than sorry. If you get a seemingly legitimate email from Ebay, Amazon, Paypal or anyone else you do business with who has a legitimate reason to request that you pay for something or update your information online, you initiate the transaction by typing their address into the address bar of your browser. Don’t just click the link in the email, type in ‘www.ebay.com’, then go to your my ebay page. When your entering your credit card information online (or anything else for that matter) always make sure the URL in your browser’s address bar is what you would expect it to be (ebay.com, not ebay.someothersite.xxyyz.com) and that the URL starts with ‘https‘ – especially if you’re entering financial information.
Notice of Underreported Income - phishing scam