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From star ratings to video views, beware fake internet stats

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Most of us know by now that we can’t trust everything we see online. But just how much of the internet is fake? It’s more than you might expect.

Fabricated content stretches far beyond just fake news, viral hoaxes and manipulated images, as experts caution that much of the web’s traffic is manipulated, too — from app downloads and YouTube views, to ad engagement, Yelp reviews and Amazon ratings.

Indeed, it appears that even the population of the internet itself — and the activity it generates — can’t be taken at face value.

So while people are right to be wary of what they see online, half of those “people” are probably bots anyway. In other words, fake users watching fake content. And considering the questionable nature by which views are often tallied, perhaps the view counts themselves are fake, too.

To a certain extent, all the metrics are fake.– Frank Pasquale, University of Maryland

According to Frank Pasquale, a law professor at the University of Maryland and author of The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms Behind Money & Information, this kind of manipulated web activity is extremely prevalent.

“To a certain extent,” he says, “all the metrics are fake.”

If that seems surreal, it should; metrics are the engine of the internet, after all.

When it comes to fake views, as much as half of YouTube’s traffic in recent years has been found to be bots. (Dado Ruvic/Reuters)

Quantified information — such as video views, product ratings and ad impressions — inform what we do as individuals, as well as how marketing dollars are spent.

As markers of what we value, what we find interesting or entertaining, and how long we spend engaged, if those metrics can’t be trusted, it can distort everything we understand about the online world. Like Alice in Wonderland, with her giant tea cups and tiny doors, size is suddenly an arbitrary factor — and ultimately useless.

The value of metrics

How has this come to be? As it is, advertisers pay for impressions.

This is a lucrative business for online platforms and those involved in selling ad space, considering that pretty much everything on the internet that users don’t pay for is powered by ad sales.

And those ad sales are driven by metrics.

Given how pervasive online advertising is, you’d assume there would be a demand for more certainty with regards to how metrics are generated. But there is very little transparency about who is engaging with ads — and if they’re even human.

This is a sampling of some of the totally fake reviews that propelled a totally fake restaurant to the No. 1 spot on TripAdvisor in London. (TripAdvisor)

Meanwhile, as consumers, we use metrics to inform our decisions. Whether it is Yelp, Amazon or Facebook, we look at ratings and reviews to help us make our decisions about things like where to eat or what to buy. And when users are looking for a tutorial on YouTube, they’re likely to infer that the ones with more views are more popular — and thus superior.

But this can be dangerous, Pasquale warns, because “when something seems popular, it also seems trustworthy.” In this way, the same mechanisms being used to sell us products are also being used to sell ideologies.

“It’s not just agencies buying ads,” Pasquale said. “It’s also groups that are … buying themselves to the top of search results, so that viewers think their extremist messaging [is] a really popular or widely held view.”

For the most part, we’re blind to the mechanisms of how we come to see what we see online — or more generally, how things come to be popular, prevalent or appealing.

“Someone can bid two pennies more than someone else to be at the top of search terms,” said Pasquale. That can result in fringe groups buying the optics of legitimacy through a combination of fake views and purchased prominence.

Indeed, when it comes to fake views, in recent years, as much as half of YouTube traffic has been found to be bots.

According to a report by bot-detection firm White Ops into a Russian operation called “Methbot,” this masquerade can be quite sophisticated, as bots charade as humans, moving a mouse around the screen, faking clicks, and logging into fake social network accounts.

Inside what have come to be referred to as “click farms,” rows and rows of unmanned smartphones play the same videos and download the same apps — all to bolster apparent interest.

So while it’s not like someone is hacking YouTube’s code to manually inflate video views, the view counts we see are no more representative of, well, what we would consider “real” views by real people.

These digital simulacra are the product of more than a decade of metrics-driven growth in which there’s been little regulatory oversight — and profit to be gained from inflating numbers.

“On one level, there is this winking alliance between the people at the platforms and the people in ad tech,” said Pasquale, who explains there are many related entities profiting off of too-good-to-be-true metrics — none of which are too keen to break the lucrative myth.

But according to some experts, the desire by bad actors to game the system through bots and other tactics will ultimately backfire.

Restoring trust

Each year, public relations firm Edelman produces an annual report called the Trust Barometer. According to spokesperson Sophie Nadeau, that research tells us that “fake metrics and engagement has the potential to contaminate the entire ecosystem in a way that’s bad for business, and bad for trust in key institutions like business, media and government.”

So what can be done about all of this fakery? Is it even possible to sort through the hype and deception? Or is it too late? Are we now mere tourists in a bot-filled world?

According to Nadeau, “it’s critical for business to demand accuracy of information, spend on quality, be agents for positive change in this area and advocate for transparency.”

For Pasquale, the solution is regulation.

“It needs to be illegal for companies to peddle false metrics,” he said. “There needs to be fines or penalties for gaming the system like this.”

Ultimately, the evident illegitimacy of so much of the web, its users and their supposed activity is the result of an over-reliance on automation and machine-driven efficiency, fuelled by greed and the desire for rapid growth.

“It’s an example of the failure of quantitative, automated metrics to take over the roles of human editors or gatekeepers,” said Pasquale.

If that’s true, he says the solution seems simple enough: If we don’t want the internet to be overrun by bots, it can’t be run by algorithms. It’s their digital world — or ours. If we truly want to take the internet back, he says, we need a lot more humans involved in online-vetting processes.

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The 3 Best Canadian Tech Stocks I Would Buy With $3,000 for 2021

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The majority of the Canadian tech stocks went through the roof in 2020 and delivered outsized returns. However, tech stocks witnessed sharp selling in the past 10 days, reflecting valuation concerns and expected normalization in demand. 

As these high-growth tech stocks shed some of their gains, I believe it’s time to accumulate them at current price levels to outperform the broader markets by a significant margin in 2021. Let’s dive into three tech stocks that have witnessed a pullback and are looking attractive bets. 

Lightspeed POS

Lightspeed POS (TSX:LSPD)(NYSE:LSPD) stock witnessed strong selling and is down about 33% in the last 10 days. I believe the selloff in Lightspeed presents an excellent opportunity for investors to invest in a high-growth and fundamentally strong company. 

Lightspeed witnessed an acceleration in demand for its digital products and services amid the pandemic. However, with the easing of lockdown measures and economic reopening, the demand for its products and services could normalize. Further, it faces tough year-over-year comparisons. 

Despite the normalization in demand, I believe the ongoing shift toward the omnichannel payment platform could continue to drive Lightspeed’s revenues and customer base. Besides, its accretive acquisitions, growing scale, and geographic expansion are likely to accelerate its growth and support the uptrend in its stock. Lightspeed stock is also expected to benefit from its growing average revenue per user, innovation, and up-selling initiatives.     

Shopify 

Like Lightspeed, Shopify (TSX:SHOP)(NYSE:SHOP) stock has also witnessed increased selling and has corrected by about 22% in the past 10 days. Notably, during the most recent quarter, Shopify said that it expects the vaccination and reopening of the economy to drive some of the consumer spending back to offline retail and services. Further, Shopify expects the pace of shift toward the e-commerce platform to return to the normal levels in 2021, which accelerated in 2020.

Despite the normalization in the pace of growth, a strong secular shift towards online commerce could continue to bring ample growth opportunities for Shopify, and the recent correction in its stock can be seen as a good buying opportunity. 

Shopify’s initiatives to ramp up its fulfillment network, international expansion and growing adoption of its payment platform are likely to drive strong growth in revenues and GMVs. Moreover, its strong new sales and marketing channels bode well for future growth. I remain upbeat on Shopify’s growth prospects and expect the company to continue to multiply investors’ wealth with each passing year. 

Docebo 

Docebo (TSX:DCBO)(NASDAQ:DCBO) stock is down about 21% in the last 10 days despite sustained momentum in its base business. The enterprise learning platform provider’s key performance metrics remain strong, implying that investors should capitalize on its low stock price and start accumulating its stock at the current levels. 

Docebo’s annual recurring revenue or ARR (a measure of future revenues) continues to grow at a brisk pace. Its ARR is expected to mark 55-57% growth in Q4. Meanwhile, its top line could increase by 48-52% during the same period. The company’s average contract value is growing at a healthy rate and is likely to increase by 22-24% during Q4. 

With the continued expansion of its customer base, geographical expansion, innovation, and opportunistic acquisitions, Docebo could deliver strong returns in 2021 and beyond.

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Manitoba to invest $6.5 million in new systems

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WINNIPEG – The province of Manitoba is investing $6.5 million over three years to replace technical systems used in healthcare facilities, including replacing current voice dictation and transcription services with more modern systems and upgrading the Provincial Health Contact Centre (PHCC)’s triage, call-recording and telephone systems, Health and Seniors Care Minister Heather Stefanson (pictured) announced.

“Our government is investing in the proper maintenance of information and communications technology to ensure digital health information can be safely stored and shared as needed,” said Stefanson. “These systems will ensure healthcare facilities can continue to provide high-quality services and allow Manitobans to get faster access to healthcare resources and information.”

Dictation, transcription and voice-recognition services are used by healthcare providers to write reports. There are currently approximately 80 healthcare sites across Manitoba using some combination of dictation, transcription and voice-recognition services. Many of these systems are nearing the end of their usable lifespans.

“Across our health system, radiologists and nuclear medicine physicians use voice-dictation services to help create diagnostic reports when reading imaging studies like ultrasound, nuclear medicine studies, X-rays, angiography, MRI and CT scans,” said Dr. Marco Essig, provincial specialty lead, diagnostic imaging, Shared Health. “Enhanced dictation and voice-recognition services will enable us to work more efficiently and provide healthcare providers with quicker access to these reports that support the diagnoses and treatment of Manitobans every day.”

The project will replace telephone-based dictation and transcription with voice-recognition functions, upgrade voice-recognition services for diagnostic imaging and enhance voice-recognition tools for mobile devices.

“Investing in more modern voice-transcription services will help our health-care workers do the administrative part of their jobs more quickly and effectively so they can get back to the most important part of their work – providing top-level healthcare and protecting Manitobans,” said Stefanson. “The transition to the new system will be made seamlessly so that services disruptions, which can lead to patient care safety risks, will not occur.”

The new systems will be compatible with other existing systems, will decrease turnaround times to improve patient care and will be standardized across the province to reduce ongoing costs and allow regional facilities to share resources as needed, Stefanson added.

The PHCC is a one-stop shop for incoming and outgoing citizen contact and supports programs such as Health Links–Info Santé, TeleCARE TeleSOINS and After-Hours Physician Access, as well as after-hours support services to public health, medical officers of health, home care and Manitoba Families.

The current vendor that supplies communications support to the PHCC is no longer providing service, making it an opportune time to invest in an upgraded system that will provide better service to Manitobans, the minister said, adding the project will provide the required systems and network infrastructure to continue providing essential services now and for the near future.

“The PHCC makes more than 650,000 customer service calls to Manitobans per year to a broad spectrum of clients with varied health issues. This reduces the need for people to visit a physician, urgent care or emergency departments,” said Stefanson. “The upgrade will also allow Manitobans in many communities to continue accessing the support they need from their home or local health centre, reducing the need for unnecessary travel.”

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Telus and UHN deliver services to the marginalized

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Telus’s Health for Good program has launched the latest of its specially equipped vans to provide medical services to the homeless and underserved, this time to the population of Toronto’s west end. The project relies not only on the hardware and software – the vans and technology – but on the care delivered by trained and socially sensitive medical professionals.

For the Toronto project, those professionals are working at the University Health Network’s Social Medicine program and the Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre. The city’s Parkdale community, in the west end, has a high concentration of homeless and marginalized people.

First launched in 2014, Telus’s Health for Good program has delivered mobile clinics to 13 Canadian cities, from Victoria to Halifax. Originally designed to deliver primary care, the program pivoted to meet the needs of patients in the COVID-19 pandemic, said Nimtaz Kanji, Calgary-based director of Telus Social Purpose Programs.

Angela Robertson of the Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre (CHC) asserted that marginalized people are particularly susceptible to the spread of COVID-19, as they don’t have access to the basic precautions that prevent its spread.

The clinic is located near a Pizza Pizza franchise; homeless people shelter under its overhang on the weekends, she said. Some have encampments under nearby bridges.

“The public health guidelines and requirements call for things that individuals who are homeless don’t have,” Robertson said. “If the response calls for isolation, that suggests people have places to isolate in.”

And in the shelter system, pre-COVID, the environment was very congregate, with many people in the same physical space, said Robertson. Some homeless persons, in order to keep themselves safe, have created encampments, and the city has opened up some hotel rooms across the city to create spaces for physical distancing.

Even proper hand-washing and hygiene becomes a challenge for the homeless.

“COVID calls for individuals to practice constant hand-washing. Oftentimes, individuals who are homeless use public washroom facilities that may be in restaurants or coffee shops, and many of those spaces are now closed. So there are limitations to accessing those facilities. It’s not like they’re in a community where there are public hand-washing facilities for people who are homeless.”

The mobile health clinic allows the CHC to take “pop-up testing” into communities where there is high positivity and where additional COVID testing is needed. The CHC can take testing into congregate sites and congregate housing to provide more testing, Robertson said.

“The other piece that we will use the van to do is, when the vaccine supply gets back online, and when the health system gets to doing community vaccinations … we hope that we can be part of that effort.”

COVID has contributed to a spike in cases of Toronto’s other pandemic: opioid overdoses. Some community members are reluctant to seek care because of the stigma attached to substance abuse; and COVID has a one-two punch for users.

The first rule of substance abuse is, don’t use alone; always be with someone who can respond to a potential overdose, ideally someone who can administer Nalaxone to reverse the effects of the overdose, Robertson said. “It’s substance abuse 101,” and the need for social distancing makes this impossible.

Secondly, COVID has affected the supply chain of street drugs. As a result, they’re being mixed increasingly with “toxic” impurities like Fentanyl that can be deadly.

The van itself is a Mercedes Sprinter, modified by architectural firm éKM architecture et aménagement and builder Zone Technologie, both based in Montréal. According to Car and Driver magazine, the Sprinter line – with 21 cargo models and 10 passenger versions – is “considered by many to be the king of cargo and passenger vans.”

Kanji said the platform was chosen for its reputation for reliability and robustness.

While the configuration is customized for each mobile clinic, it generally consists of two sections: A practitioner’s workstation and a more spacious and private examination room, so patients can receive treatment with privacy and dignity, Kanji said. The Parkdale clinic is 92 square feet.

“While the layouts vary across regions, they typically include an examination table and health practitioners’ workstation, including equipment necessary to provide primary healthcare,” the Telus vice-president of provider solutions wrote in an e-mail interview. The Parkdale Queen West mobile clinic is designed for primary medical services, including wound care, mobile COVID-19 testing and vaccination efforts, harm reduction services, mental healthcare and counseling.

The clinic equipped with an electronic medical record (EMR) from TELUS Health and TELUS LTE Wi-Fi network technology.

Practitioners will be able to collect and store patient data, examine a patient’s results over time, and provide better continuity of care to those marginalized citizens who often would have had undocumented medical histories.

The EMR system is Telus Health’s PS Suite (formerly Practice Solutions). It is an easy-to-use, customizable solution for general and specialty practices that captures, organizes, and displays patient information in a user-friendly way. The solution allows for the electronic management of patient charts and scheduling, receipt of labs and hospital reports directly into the EMR, and personalization of workflows with customizable templates, toolbars, and encounter assistants.

But like others tested for COVID, it’s a 24-48 hour wait for results. Pop-up or not, how does the mobile team get results to patients who have no fixed address?

The CHC set up a centre for testing in a tent at the Waterfront Community Centre. Swabs are sent to the lab. “We are responsible for connecting back with community members and their results,” Robertson said.

“This is the value of having Parkdale Queen West being in front of the testing, because many of the community members who are homeless we know through our other services, and there is some trust in folks either coming to us to make arrangements to collect their results, or we know where they are.”

This is a key element of the program, said Kanji – leveraging community trust. In Vancouver downtown east side, for example, where there is a high concentration of marginalized members of the indigenous community, nurse practitioners are accompanied by native elders in a partnership with the Kilala Lelum Health Centre.

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