Facebook employees get new guidelines

Facebook on Thursday emphasized that it does not permit its employees to block news stories from its “Trending Topics” list based on political bias, amid a controversy over how the social mediasuperpower selects what news it displays.

Technology news website Gizmodo on Monday reported that a formerFacebook employee said workers “routinely suppressed news stories of interest to conservative readers” while “artificially” adding other stories to the trending list.

The Gizmodo story triggered a reaction on social media, with several journalists and commentators raising concerns about alleged bias, and prompted a US senate inquiry.

The social media company, whose reach is global, had over a billion daily active users on average in March, according to statistics the company posted to its newsroom.

In a post published to Facebook’s media relations section on Thursday, a senior company official outlined its “Trending Topics” guidelines at length.

“Facebook does not allow or advise our reviewers to discriminate against sources of any political origin, period,” wrote Justin Osofsky, vice president for global operations. “We have a series of checks and balances in place to help surface the most important popular stories, regardless of where they fall on the ideological spectrum.”

The post went on to explain how certain topics emerge in Facebook users’ trending feeds. Potential trending topics are identified by an algorithm, or formula, Facebook said, then reviewed by a “Trending Topics” team.

Gizmodo Editor-in-Chief Katie Drummond responded to the post with an email saying, “I don’t see anything that contradicts our reporting–do you?”

Gizmodo’s story sparked a Senate committee inquiry.
Republican US Senator John Thune, chairman of the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, said in a statement on Tuesday that Facebook needed to respond to “these serious allegations.”
“Any attempt by a neutral and inclusive social media platform to censor or manipulate political discussion is an abuse of trust and inconsistent with the values of an open Internet,” said Thune.

Facebook gets “At Work” in India

Corporate workplaces may ban the use of social networking sites like Facebook in their offices, but the internet giant has found a way to enter this space. Startups and older businesses in India such as Zomato, PayTM, BookMyShow, Delhivery, Yes Bank, L&T Infotech, Godrej, and others have begun using Facebook At Work — a twin of the network as we know it but strictly for on-the-job use. Think spreadsheets instead of wedding pictures on the news feed.

“Here (in India), there was a need for people without email or (official) mobile numbers to get on to the platform,” Julien Codorniou, director of Facebook at Work told TOI on Tuesday while talking about how the Indian market compares with the others. “The scale and momentum here is much bigger than other countries,” says Codorniou, who also serves on the board of French media group Le Monde.

Still in the beta stage, Facebook At Work, falls into the category of what are called “enterprise networks”. These are for use within offices for collaborative projects and sharing messages among other things.

Facebook first launched a beta platform for the work variant in 2015, piloting the project with Royal Bank of Scotland. In India, L&T Infotech was the first company to come on board in April this year.

Visually, Facebook has retained most of its features from the regular website for its “At Work” variant. Otherwise, it comes with its own network and messaging app, is stripped off of Candy Crush, Farmville, and other such apps; comes in a slate grey colour that is distinct from the regular Facebook’s deep blue; and requires a different login (so no toggling between Facebook for personal use and Facebook for work within the same account). More importantly, it does not have anyads. Revenue comes from a subscription model. Facebook declined to reveal the fee and the available subscription plans.

Facebook claims that over 60,000 companies had signed up for a trial in the beta version when they first piloted this project in the US and the UK in July last year. Even so, it is in for heavy competition.

Slack, a popular enterprise messaging app, hit two million daily active users at the end of 2015. It was recently valued at $3.8 billion. Microsoft’s Yammer claimed to have acquired eight million users back in 2013. earlier this year, Microsoft made Yammer part of the bundle of services with Office365. Slack is available as both a paid version and a free one. It charges between $6.67 and $12.50 per user depending on the subscription plan. Its Indian counterpart Flock, charges $3 per user per month for added features.

Could this move into the enterprise market have been better-timed to tackle competition? Codorniou claims that Facebook At Work is not running the same race. “We think of ourselves as a productivity app. Our competition is internal emails, VOIPs, and company intranets,” he says.

Facebook’s trending topic controversy: All you need to know

What’s behind the accusations that Facebook is manipulating its”trending topics” feature to promote or suppress certain political perspectives?

According to the technology blog Gizmodo , which is owned by Gawker Media, a former Facebook contractor with self-described conservative leanings said Facebook downplayed news that conservatives are interested in and artificially promoted liberal issues such as the “BlackLivesMatter” hashtag. Gizmodo did not name this person.

Facebook denied the claims, but the GOP-led US Senate Commerce Committee has sent a letter to Facebook and CEO Mark Zuckerberg requesting answers about the matter.

Here’s a look at what the fuss is about:

What are ‘trending topics?

Facebook shows some of the most popular topics being discussed at any given moment. On browsers, the topics appear on the top right corner, separate from the news feed containing updates from your friends and family.

Besides “top trends,” users on traditional personal computers can click on specific topics such as “sports” and “entertainment.” On Wednesday, top politics trends for one U.S. user included comments from “Duck Dynasty” star Phil Robertson on the transgender bathroom issue as well as the Facebook trending controversy itself. Topics for another U.S. Facebook user were slightly different and also had Donald Trump and “Full Frontal” comedy host Samantha Bee giving a goodbye tribute to Ted Cruz.

On mobile devices, users can tap on the search bar to see the top trends, but they can’t see separate categories, regardless of whether it’s on an app or Web browser.

As with a similar feature on Twitter, Facebook doesn’t purport to show all the most popular topics. They wouldn’t be interesting anyway and would probably include the weather, cute puppy videos, and years-old listicles about the best ways to stay thin. Facebook says software formulas identify trending topics, and humans review them “to confirm that the topics are in fact trending news in the real world and not, for example, similar-sounding topics or misnomers.”

What is the proof that Facebook actually does this:

There isn’t much proof beyond one anonymous former contractor.

The Associated Press could not independently verify the claims. Facebook’s vice president of search, Tom Stocky, said Monday that the company found “no evidence” that the allegations are true.
“We do not insert stories artificially into trending topics, and do not instruct our reviewers to do so. Our guidelines do permit reviewers to take steps to make topics more coherent, such as combining related topics into a single event (such as

It might not even be in Facebook’s interest to promote or suppress certain perspectives. The service is used by 1.65 billion people each month, most of them outside the U.S. Facebook has an interest in keeping these people happy, regardless of their political leanings, so that they keep using the service and advertisers keep courting them. Zuckerberg typically sets his sights on the next decade – and decades – into Facebook’s future. As such, an election year such as this one is but a blip.

Backlash for Facebook?

Facebook’s sheers size and ubiquity means any controversy can attract the attention of the news media, politicians and political activists. Other recent examples include the company’s frequent changes to its privacy policies and its requirement that drag queens and other transgender users use their real names on the site.

The latest firestorm has led to plenty of media coverage, as well as a letter from U.S. Sen. John Thune, the South Dakota Republican who heads the Commerce Committee. He requested information on who at the company made the decisions on stories that appear in the trending feature. He asked for answers by May 24.

Is this a big deal?

If evidence emerges that Facebook favors certain political perspectives, it would be a big deal, as it could cause people to lose trust in the company as a neutral platform.

Thirty percent of US adults get news on Facebook, according to the Pew Research Center. The firestorm suggests a certain degree of anxiety about the influence Facebook is having in shaping the worldview of its users by becoming their main news source, even as newspapers across the U.S. are shutting down amid low readership and declining advertising dollars.

Police indifference reflects on Facebook

While some gangsters lodged in jails of Punjab face no problem in updating their Facebook page about the latest crime, Ludhiana police refuse to acknowledge complaints and suggestions made by city residents on its Facebook page.

According to the Facebook page of Ludhiana police, the last time it was updated was on April 28. That is almost two weeks ago. Similarly, another Facebook page run by Ludhiana police, “Traffic Police Ludhiana”, has not been updated for the same time period. The last post on the page was related to cross-verification check posts to arrest vehicle thieves.

Many residents who keep a watch on the Facebook pages said Ludhiana police’s lack of activity was a reflection of its general indifference towards the public. “Earlier, Ludhiana police would share important information on traffic jams, rules and other crime-related advisories. It helped us in various ways. But, for about two weeks, they have not been doing it,” said Amandeep Singh, a businessman of Model Town.

He added that police in major cities of India had been using social-networking sites to connect better with people. Police authorities, meanwhile, said that the matter would be looked into. “I did not know about it. I will ask the officer concerned to update pages frequently as we need to use social-networking sites for better communication with residents,” said police commissioner Jatinder Singh Aulakh.

Indifference writ large

Ludhiana police did not respond to any one of these posts by city residents on its Facebook page:

Sumrit Khurana | March 21

Absolutely poor work. Whenever there is a traffic jam, your officers are busy on their phone and people themselves have to clear it . And whenever your organisation needs money your policemen start issuing Challans. (Remark was in reference to a traffic jam due to crack in an overbridge, which commuters themselves had to clear.)

Rupesh Monga | April 8

Please control speeding by private buses in Ludhiana. The speed check post at Ferozpur Road, near octroi, is meant for only cars. I have never seen them checking buses and autos, even when the stop in the middle of road to pick passengers. Please regulate traffic. There should be a page where we can post videos showing traffic violations.

Pawaninder Singh | April 25
This is my thrid message to the police. There is school near our house. In the afternoon, vans of the school are driven recklessly and at break-neck speeds. We have children playing in the parks and crossing roads. Please take steps, like putting up barriers, to enure that there is no speeding. What are our cops waiting for?

Facebook opens office in Malaysia

Social media giant, Facebook has opened a local office in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur, a media report said on Thursday.

“The office launch marks a milestone for Facebook in Malaysia and we are committed to helping Malaysians and businesses connect in more meaningful ways,” said Facebook South-East Asia managing director Kenneth Bishop.

“Our local team in Malaysia will be focused on helping businesses tap into this unprecedented opportunity to connect with mobile-first consumers,” The Malaysian Star quoted Bishop as saying.

According to a recent survey by research firm TNS, 94% of Malaysians discovered products and brands on Facebook, and 62% make a purchase after discovery.

There are currently more than 18 million Malaysians on the social media platform, and 6.5 million people on photo-sharing platform Instagram, which the company also owns.

Malaysian also ranks 10th globally for the number of friends, which is 60% more than the global average.

The local office will be headed by Nicole Tan, who was previously the managing director of J Walter Thompson Malaysia, an advertising company.

“Malaysians on Facebook are an active and mobile first community. They spend more time watching video on their smartphones than consumers in any other country in South-East Asia,” Tan said.

The company also said that South-East Asia is its fastest growing region and Malaysia, being a mobile first country with 144% mobile penetration rate, is one of the key growth drivers.
Out of the 1.65 billion users on the platform globally, more than 241 million comes from South-East Asia, mostly (94%) accessing through mobile devices.

The opening of the local office is part of its expansion in the region following the launch of the Philippines office last month.

Facebook unveils ‘Facebook at Work’ in India

New Delhi, May 10 () Social networking giant Facebook has rolled out its enterprise offering — Facebook at Work — in India that will allow employees of an organisation to collaborate and connect with co-workers.

The programme — at its beta stage — has seen firms like L&T Infotech, Telenor, RBS, YES Bank, Godrej Industries, Paytm, Zomato and Delhivery coming on board.

Similar to Facebook, the enterprise offering allows users to connect with their colleagues, see newsfeed, comment and share posts, create groups and chat using Work Chat.

However, users cannot use their personal accounts to log in and the access is managed by the organisation. So, if an employee leaves an organisation, the login ceases to work and hence, the corporate data stay safe.

Facebook at Work also has no ads or games. The US-based company charges a fee based on number of monthly active users.

“At Facebook, our mission is to make the world more open and connected, and this is also true in the workplace. In a mobile-first world, we want to help people find simpler ways to collaborate and connect with co-workers,” Facebook at Work Director Julien Codorniou told reporters here.

Facebook at Work is not a social networking solution, but a productivity solution, he added.

“Over 60,000 companies globally signed up globally for the pilot. Of these, we have already got 450 companies on board. These include different sectors from banking, telecom, travel, retail and real estate,” Facebook at Work Asia-Pacific Head Ramesh Gopalkrishna said.

He added that several companies in India like L&T Infotech, YES Bank, Godrej Industries, Zomato as well as start-ups like Delhivery, Practo and Paytm have started using Facebook at Work with employees as well.

Gopalkrishna, however, declined to comment on the number of users for Facebook at Work.

“India is one of Facebook at Work’s top countries and our teams will start testing the solution with more companies… Facebook is focussing on adding companies with 5,000-10,000 employees before opening the platform,” he added.

Of Facebook’s over 1.62 billion global users, over 142 million come from India.

Blocking ‘fake engagement’ to keep the count honest

Facebook

When you see that a YouTube video has “16,685 views,” take that with a grain of salt. Not all of those views may have been by human beings.

There are services that will, for a fee, spam a social media site with computer-generated views, likes, comments and other actions to boost a posting’s apparent popularity and draw more attention. Videos with a lot of views, for example, will be featured on YouTube’s opening page.

“Bad actors have been trying to game the system,” said Yixuan Li, a graduate student working with John Hopcroft, the IBM Professor of Engineering and Applied Mathematics in the Department of Computer Science. The problem is not limited to YouTube, the researchers pointed out, noting “Twitter followers, Amazon reviews and Facebook likes are all buyable by the thousand.”

In “a world that counts,” the researchers said, the count should reflect genuine interest.

The good news is that Li, Hopcroft and colleagues at Google have developed a way to recognize and block this “fake social engagement.” Li began the project while interning at Google, and the system is now coming into use on their sites, he said. Li described the system, called “LEAS” (Local Expansion At Scale) in a paper presented at at the 25th International World Wide Web Conference held April 11 to 15 in Montreal.

A tipoff, Li explained, is that the accounts posting the fake hits are in “lockstep,” posting to the same video targets around the same times. LEAS creates a map – officially known as an “engagement relationship graph” – of accounts and links between them, and behavioral similarity over time. It learns by looking at known spamming accounts (called “seeds”), then searches on the engagement graph for sets of accounts similar to the seeds performing orchestrated actions that have very low likelihood of happening spontaneously. It works best, the researchers said, to focus on small “local” sections of the graph.

To evaluate the system, humans manually reviewed postings from accounts LEAS had identified as spammers on YouTube. Some of those accounts had been created very recently but had run up a long list of postings. The comments they posted often amounted to just “good video,” “Yeah,” “Cool” and and other all-purpose bits of text, and identical comments had been posted to several videos. Some of the comments included malicious web links and advertisements.

An open source toolbox for pure mathematics

An open source toolbox for pure mathematics

The field of pure mathematics has always depended on computers to make tables, prove theorems and explore new theories. Today, computer aided experiments and the use of databases relying on computer calculations are part of the pure mathematician’s standard toolbox. In fact, these tools have become so important that some areas of mathematics are now completely dependent on them.

More recently, computers have been increasingly used to support collaborative work with the emergence of a wide array of open source tools geared towards supporting research in pure mathematics. These programmes include such computational tools as GAP, PARI/GP, LinBox, MPIR, Sage and Singular, along with online databases like LMFDB – all of which are further enhanced by the Jupyter platform for interactive and exploratory computing within the sciences.

An ecosystem of collaboration

Despite the many benefits of such open source programmes, their development has been restricted due to limited funding and an inability to link individual programmes. That’s why the EU-funded OPENDREAMKIT project is working to support the ecosystem of open-source mathematical software systems. Specifically, the project aims to promote the technological development of open source programmes for use in mathematics by, for example, improving User Interfaces (UI) and lowering the barriers between various research communities. It is also seeking to streamline access, distribution and portability on a wide range of platforms – including high performance computers and cloud services.

The core component of the project is the creation of Virtual Research Environments (VRE), or online services, that enable groups of researchers located anywhere in the world to work collaboratively on a per project basis. To do this, OPENDREAMKIT is taking such popular software-based mathematic apps as MathHub and SageMath and adapting them for use in the interactive, collaborative open source environment. The end result will be a flexible toolkit that enables researchers to set up customisable VREs capable of supporting the entire research life-cycle.

Unifying the building blocks

Over 50 people spread across 15 European sites are busy working on the OPENDREAMKIT toolkit, which will consist of community-developed open software, databases and services. The team started its work by defining an innovative, component-based VRE architecture by adapting existing software, databases and UI components for the mathematics sector. The project also involves the input of leading mathematicians, computational researchers and software developers, thus ensuring it supports actual research needs.

In the end, the toolkit will improve and unify such existing building blocks as LinBox, MPIR, SageMath, GAP, PariGP, LMFDG and Singular, along with extend the Jupyter Notebook by giving it a flexible UI. The ultimate goal is to make it as easy as possible for research teams of any size to quickly set up a customised, collaborative VRE tailored to their specific needs, research and workflow. Project organisers are confident that, as a result of the OPENDREAMKIT toolkit, these VREs will play a substantial role in improving the productivity of researchers in pure mathematics and applications by promoting collaboration on data, knowledge and software.

Collaborating to create a comprehensive maths atlas

In addition to the core objective of building an open source toolkit, the OPENDREAMKIT project is also collaborating with other similar projects. For example, it recently worked with international mathematicians from MIT and other institutions to create an online resource that provides detailed maps of previously uncharted mathematical terrain. The resulting ‘L-functions and Modular Forms Database’ (LMFDB) is a detailed atlas of mathematical objects that highlights deep relationships and serves as a guide to current research happening in physics, computer science and mathematics. The effort was part of a large collaboration of researchers from around the world.

Using cellphone data to study the spread of cholera

Vibrio cholerae

While cholera has hardly changed over the past centuries, the tools used to study it have not ceased to evolve. Using mobile phone records of 150,000 users, an EPFL-led study has shown to what extent human mobility patterns contributed to the spread of a cholera epidemic in Senegal in 2005. The researchers’ findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, highlight the critical role a mass gathering of millions of pilgrims played in spreading of the disease, and how measures to improve sanitation at transmission hotspots could decrease the progression of future outbreaks.

“There is a lot of hype around using big data from mobile phones to study epidemiology,” says senior author Enrico Bertuzzo, from the Ecohydrology Laboratory at the Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne. This is largely due to the fact that mobile phone data can be used to reconstruct, with unprecedented detail, mobility fluxes of an entire population. “But I dare say that this is the first time that such data are exploited to their full potential in an epidemiological model.”

Cholera is an infectious disease that occurs primarily in developing countries with poor sanitation infrastructure. It spreads primarily via water that has been contaminated with the bacterium Vibrio cholerae, present in the feces of infected people. Human mobility and waterways both contribute to spreading the disease among human communities, whereas heavy precipitation events increase the chances of the bacteria to contaminate drinking water sources. Researchers at EPFL have developed a mathematical simulation model that accounts for these factors, which they tested on past outbreaks such as the one in Haiti in 2010.

“A lot of local conditions play into whether a minor cholera outbreak will evolve into a major epidemic,” says Flavio Finger, the study’s lead author. “One goal of our research was to develop ways to estimate how the disease spread across populations, both in space and in time,” he says. “Knowing how many cases you are likely to have and where they are likely to be are two important pieces of information that can help dispatch healthcare workers to the right places.”

But until now, human mobility patterns had to be reconstructed from patient case data—a tedious process that, according to Finger, has some major flaws. “This project really began when we were given a chance to work with mobile phone data,” says Finger. The data, provided by Sonatel and the Orange Group, gave the researchers access to the approximate locations of 150,000 customers throughout 2013 as part of their Data for Development Challenge. “Having access to more accurate data on population movement simplified our work and eliminated much of the remaining uncertainty.”

Using the mobile phone data, Finger and his co-authors tested their model by re-running the cholera outbreak that hit Senegal in 2005 on a computer. Its spread had previousy been linked to an annual religious pilgrimage to the city of Touba that brings together millions of pilgrims. “Our simulation did a great job at reproducing the peak of reported cases of cholera in the region around Touba, where the epidemic broke out during the pilgrimage. Without the mobile phone data it would have been impossible to capture this phenomenon, which needs a high density of people to be triggered.” It was also spot-on mapping the spread of the disease across the country as pilgrims traveled home and even replicated certain local events, such as a spike in cholera cases in the country’s capital, Dakar, following intense rainfall there.

“We have also used our simulation to test different intervention strategies, says Finger. “You can use antibiotics or vaccines, or invest in improving sanitary standards. All of these approaches have different impacts and cost different amounts of money and resources. Our simulation gives us a tool to evaluate and compare their efficacy,” he says. They found that improving access to sanitation and providing clean drinking water could have considerably reduced the number of new cases of cholera during the pilgrimage. With less pilgrims disseminating the disease in the country, this would have led to a lower number of new cases later on.

LTU computer scientist to present groundbreaking research

Louisiana Tech University computer scientist to present groundbreaking research

Dr. Ben Choi, associate professor of computer science at Louisiana Tech University, will present his research on a groundbreaking new technology that has the potential to revolutionize the computing industry during a keynote speech next month at the International Conference on Measurement Instrumentation and Electronics.

Choi will present on a foundational architecture for designing and building computers, which will utilize multiple values rather than binary as used by current computers. The many-valued logic computers should provide faster computation by increasing the speed of processing for microprocessors and the speed of data transfer between the processors and the memory as well as increasing the capacity of the memory.

This technology has the potential to redefine the computing industry, which is constantly trying to increase the speed of computation and, in recent years, has run short of options.

By providing a new hardware approach, the technology will push the speed limit of computing using a progressive approach which will move from two values to four values, then to eight values, then to 16 values, and so on. Future computers could be built using this many-valued approach.

“Advances in the foundational design of the computer are needed in business and research applications as well as at the foundation of cyber security efforts across the nation,” said Dr. Galen Turner, director of computer science, cyber engineering, electrical engineering and electrical engineering technology at Louisiana Tech. “Dr. Choi’s invitation to present at the upcoming conference has increased interest in this foundational architecture.”

Louisiana Tech and Choi have filed a U.S. patent application for this groundbreaking technology titled “Method and Apparatus for Designing Many-Valued Logic Computer.”

“If this is successful, computers in the future will be based on our technology,” said Choi. In addition to the keynote speech, Choi’s research will be released in a publication in the related journal.

Choi earned his Ph.D., M.S., and B.S. degrees from The Ohio State University, specializing in computer science, computer engineering and electrical engineering. His research focus areas include Humanoid Robots, Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Intelligent Agents, Semantic Web, Data Mining, Fuzzy Systems, and Parallel Computing.

Prior to coming to Louisiana Tech, Choi served as a visiting research scholar at DePaul University, University of Western Australia and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. He has also worked in the computer industry as a System Performance Engineer at Lucent Technologies (Bell Labs) and as a private computer consultant.