Google Ad-targeting and Privacy Concerns

Last month I received the ad below:

Visit Avila Beach

On the surface, this ad seems harmless enough. After all, living in Los Angeles, I would love to take a drive through the central coast and spend a weekend in Avila Beach and maybe even go surfing in my new, very warm and cozy Body Glove Red Cell wetsuit. However, why this ad was targeted at me is cause for concern. I received this ad only after a few communications in MS Outlook with a student of mine, who has, let’s just say, a similar name.

For those who aren’t aware, FERPA stands for the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 and is a US federal law that governs the access to educational information and records by public entities such as potential employers, publicly funded educational institutions, and foreign governments. For me, I send a lot of communications through my Android device, which raises a few important questions such as, 1) Is Google scanning my Outlook communications?, 2) Is Google taking screenshots of my devices, and 3) Does any of this violate FERPA?

I’d love to hear some answers…

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Anything for a buck…

Google Opinion Rewards is an app launched by Google a few years ago as a rewards-based program that allows users to answer surveys and earn rewards. In short summary, users are notified when new surveys are available, which can range from sharing location data, sharing experiences on YouTube or sharing a shopping receipt, where users can receive up to $1.00 Google Play credit for completing it. Surveys can expire, so users have to be quick to answer them, although they usually hang around for a day or two.

Looking back on my Reward history, I have been participating since December 2013, where my first survey earned me a buck. Not bad. While the majority of my surveys earn me ten cents, I have amassed a total of $186.67 across 661 surveys, which I can use to purchase Google products and service. I’m sure there’s a way to get the cash as well.

As they say, anything for a buck!

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SMS Says I Voted… for kodos

I voted in another election? It looks like I did anyway.

Very thankfully, I live in California. And without diving too much into a political science debate, I like to think that, even given all the challenges our largest state in the union faces politically, I like to think we all support the idea of early voting. Full disclosure, I’m a native New Yorker. With this comes a frustration and chronic impatience of waiting on lines, whether at a stoplight or at a coffee shop. Early voting removes this frustration of waiting in a queue and allows me the time I need to research my votes from my own home. That said, people express concerns about early voting. For me, the concern has been if my ballot is being received and will be counted. Once again, I am lucky to live in a jurisdiction that allows me to track my ballot with relative ease. This year I signed up to receive text messages as my ballot is tracked through the process. I dropped mine off with the USPS. I wasn’t nervous about it counting, but certainly things can happen and ballots can be lost. Thanks to tech, I can see my vote “for the 2020 General Election was received and will be counted.”

I Vote

Election Project is a great initiative tracking early voting in the U.S. Not only does it track early mail-in and in-person voting, it provides a run-down of outstanding ballots by party where available and the number of rejected ballots. Good info for those keeping track of the popularity of early voting.

Regarding rejected ballots, I feel there should be an automated system (they have our voter info) that alerts a voter to whether their ballot was rejected, which will give them the opportunity on election day to vote in-person. Other improvements to the voting system can also be improved I’m sure, but I believe the early voting provides the best opportunity for the greatest voter turn-out. Voting should not have to be a single-day sacrificial event. It should be a process, aided by technology, to ensure the highest levels of participation for what is a right as citizens. It makes you wonder what the motives are for those that want to restrict voting rights.

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Initial Thumbs Down for YouTube Music

In 2012 I posted a blog raving about Google Music ( This past month, Google retired Google Music in favor of it’s new streaming music service YouTube Music. In short, the service is limiting and frustrating.

For starters, I have come to appreciate Google’s suite of services and have purchased multiple Google Home devices including Google Home, Google Home Max, Google Router and Google Chromecasts. While there have been integration issues in the past, nothing compares to my frustrations with YouTube Music. YouTube Music allowed me to transfer my entire media collection from Google Play, which was nice, but my purchased music only shows up under a separate tab, Uploads. In other words, they treat uploads completely separate from YT Music. Again, this would be fine if I was able to seamlessly interact with my music as I did in the past through Play Music using Google Home commands. Unfortunately, asking Google using voice commands like ‘Okay Google, play my playlist Vampire Weekend’ does not launch my playlist but YouTube Music Radio’s artist or genre request.

YT Music Search
YT Playlist

The two things very wrong with this are 1) Google Home does not play my YT Music playlists and 2) there are so many ads infused in their radio subscription with frequent messages to upgrade to Google Play Music Premium Service. I’d probably choose Spotify over Google if I needed to pay to stream.

The bottom line, the only way to stream my uploaded music at home is to use the cast feature from my smartphone or browser. And this, just when voice commands have become a seamless part of my human computer interactions. In short, Google, please allow me to use Google Home to stream my uploaded music playlists and stop asking me to upgrade every time I use the service. Thanks.

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Mobile.SocialXYZ v1 Results

Mobile SocialXYZ Home Screen

In my previous post, I introduced Version 1 of mobile.socialxyz. The system was released in June to my asynchronous online course on human computer interaction, a fitting setting for measuring human computer interaction of my software. Overall, the app achieved modest usage from the 18 participants in the course. Considering that coronavirus and quarantine has put a discount on mobile learning applications because why use the mobile version of the software when you are nearby a workstation, any levels of adoption of the mobile application was seen as a positive result.

A system survey found that 50% of the 18 participants stated that they used the mobile app frequently. This resulted in around 3,000 api calls made by the mobile application (a single api call is made for each and every screen accessed). This accounted for roughly 25% of all traffic across the entire platform (9,000 webpage views). Of those users logging into the mobile app, 65% accessed the app through iOS devices and 35% of students accessed the app using an Android device. Consequently, 16% of all content created across the platform was created through the mobile app.

User perceptions of the system were also captured. Of those users responding to the system survey, 78% indicated satisfaction with the mobile application compared to 100% indicating satisfaction with the browser-based system, 50% found it easy to use and 50% thought it was an excellent way to access updates by the instructor and classmates.

Mobile SocialXYZ

The summer HCI course provided a nice beta test for the application and helped to iron out critical bugs and improvements to be made for Version 2, which will be released in late August. Version 1 also allowed users to comment on the software and offer improvements for next release. For example one user identified that it would be beneficial to see comments from the instructor in the gradebook. Another user indicated that it would be useful to have the login persist instead of having to continuously log in. Both additions have been added to the latest app release. The comments features is illustrated in the image on the right and allows users to click on their grade to view a breakdown of the entire feedback left by the course instructor.

Mobile SocialXYZ
User Profile

Another nice feature added for Version 2 is a user profile screen, illustrated in the image to the left. As a social learning application, I thought it was important to allow users to view the basic background information of their classmates. Not pictured is the “Like” button at the bottom, which gives users an opportunity to leave a little bit of feedback if they want. Eventually, this screen will allow for greater levels of activity, possibly including a message wall and breakdown of user activity.

In conclusion, it was an initial good run through the software and I look for expanded use this fall with version 2 rolling out soon.

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