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Next layer in real estate search: cell phone coverage

When you search for real estate, some offer a layer of lifestyle search so you can see nearby food, yoga, schools, and the like, but the next layer to be looking out for is cell phone coverage.

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Nothing worse than bad cell phone coverage

As a native Texan, I can tell you first hand that not all cell phone carriers are created equal, and driving in and out of the hill country will result in dropped calls, even today. Try getting any carrier to work inside of a stucco house surrounded by hills – it’s impossible. So what do most people do to learn whether a home they’re interested in buying or renting is in a spot their phone will work? Testing in person, which is far from a reliable measure, and looking at the coverage map provided by the carrier is, let’s be honest, a joke.

It’s more than an inconvenience, moving into a home with no cell phone coverage can be a safety issue, makes getting any work done from home impossible, and makes personal communication complicated.

Enter Open Signal, an Android app currently running on over two million devices, which is constantly detecting signal strength automatically, and mapping the trends of which carriers are reliable geographically, down to an individual street address. Anyone can visit the site and check out a map, filtering the map by carrier, as well as 2G, 3G, and 4G coverage.

OpenSignal writes, “If we want to know if a certain network provides coverage in our area we rely on coverage maps provided by that same network. To see how backwards this situation is just consider the analog in any other industry – Would you trust a restaurant review written by the head chef himself? Mobile coverage is too important to remain a black box.”

The company has announced they have released the first version of their API (application programming interface), and note they are actively seeking “developers who are interested in harnessing the data we collect in their own applications.”

Enter real estate search companies

When we learned of OpenSignal’s API, we wondered who would be the first to use their API to add a layer to their existing real estate search, allowing consumers to search by cell phone coverage, which would be particularly useful in rural areas or mountainous or hill country areas.

Lifestyle search already allows consumers to search most major real estate sites by schools, hospitals, restaurants, walkability, and more, but ask any warm blooded American if they would live somewhere that their cell phone couldn’t possibly work, and the answer will almost certainly be an emphatic “yes.”

So will Move, Inc., operator of Realtor.com, be first, or will the newly public Zillow and Trulia get to the finish line on a national scale? Or will it be a younger contender or an IDX company that offers it first? No matter who beats the others to the punch, we anticipate this could become a subtle, yet vital part of real estate search, allowing consumers to make decisions not only on housing, but determining which carrier to switch to should they fall in love with a home with poor coverage.

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Lani is the Chief Operating Officer at The American Genius and has been named in the Inman 100 Most Influential Real Estate Leaders several times, co-authored a book, co-founded BASHH and Austin Digital Jobs, and is a seasoned business writer and editorialist with a penchant for the irreverent.

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9 Comments

9 Comments

  1. Steve Albin

    October 7, 2012 at 6:11 pm

    Another useless App

  2. laniar

    October 7, 2012 at 8:03 pm

    Steve, thanks for commenting, but I’m dying to know – why do you find it useless? Do you also find the API useless? I’m not sure I get your meaning…

  3. kenbrand

    October 7, 2012 at 8:42 pm

    That’s super interesting.  I would think anyone who owns a cell phone would want to know what the hyperlocal signal strength was.  I would image mining, smelting and selling the collected app-user data would be valuable.  Hmmmmm.

  4. MattWilkins

    October 7, 2012 at 10:43 pm

    I’m finding buyers are looking at both this and which telecommunications providers are available.

  5. John Treck

    October 8, 2012 at 7:16 am

    Thanks for this map and the Open Signal Website! keep up the good work!

  6. jan de graaf

    October 8, 2012 at 7:16 am

    Thanks for this map and the Open Signal Website! keep up the good work!

  7. Jeff Brown

    October 8, 2012 at 5:34 pm

    I can hear it now. “Don’t buy in that neighborhood if you’re using Sprint. It’s like the black hole.” One wonders if all of a sudden carriers with poor reception, noticing lost business, would erect more towers?

    • ThomasABJohnson

      October 9, 2012 at 2:46 am

      @Jeff Brown The Real Estate cell tower Viagra effect: Tower Erections.

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Silicon Valley created tech for your family that’s too addictive for theirs

(TECHNOLOGY) Tech inventors are big on innovating and advancing tools, but a growing parenting trend in tech circles seems hypocritical.

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I consider myself an older Millennial. I was slowly but surely introduced to technologies as they became mass-marketable, but they didn’t affect every moment of my day-to-day life. I learned how to use computers in elementary school, I chatted on AOL as a preteen, and when I was 16, my parents gave me my own cell phone “for emergencies.” I promptly dropped it under the car seat, where it remained for a year, before I or my parents even noticed that it was missing.

In less than a generation, our relationship to cell phones has transformed completely. For one thing, my first cell phone didn’t have a touch screen. It didn’t have an internet connection. Hell, for an entire year, I didn’t even use the damn thing.

Fast forward to 2018, when your children can learn to use an iPad at the same time that they learn to use a toilet.

Interestingly, the tech whizzes who designed much of the technology that now pervades nearly every moment of our lives seem wariest of the negative impact screen time might have on kids. The NYT reports that the trend amongst Silicon Valley parents is to severely limit or even ban cell phone use by their children.

Parents in all echelons of the tech industry are limiting their kids’ exposure. Steve Jobs kept iPads out of the hands of his young children. The Gates offspring didn’t receive cell phones until high school (just like me, in 2001), and Tim Cook discourages his nephew from using social networks.

These concerned parents describe the addictive potential and negative consequences of screen time in increasingly pessimistic terms.

Athena Chavarria, a former Facebook employee, believes that “the devil lives in our phones and is wreaking havoc on our children.”

Chris Anderson (yes that Chris Anderson), former editor of Wired and founder of GeekDad, says that when it comes to screens, “On a scale between candy and crack cocaine, it’s closer to crack cocaine.”

Parents are even making contractual agreements to make sure their kids don’t use screens while under the supervision of their nanny or babysitter.

Like basically every human idea or invention ever, connected, screened devices reveal that our ability to create new technologies far outpaces our ability to understand the consequences – positive or negative – of that tech.

Those closest to the situation – the inventors themselves – are often the first ones to sound the alarm when they realize that their hard-won advancements may not have been such a great idea after all.

Said Chris Anderson of the addictive nature of cell phones, “We thought we could control it. And this is beyond our power to control.”

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Amazingly fun tech toys that are secretly educational

(TECHNOLOGY) STEM toys for children are fun *and* educational – here are some that have caught our eye.

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There’s a new trend amongst startups – and amongst kids’ toys: educational playthings that teach your little ones STEM skills like programming and coding.

Toys that double as learning tools are nothing new, but digital, connected technology still is, and so is the idea that your toddler can get a leg up in the tech industry by getting an early start.

Parents, universities, and economists seem concerned that acquiring STEM skills will soon be the only way to guarantee a good job, despite reports from the U.S. Census Bureau that 3 out of 4 STEM majors end up in non-STEM fields anyway.

So if your kid is more into, say, baseball or dancing than computers, you might be wasting the pretty pennies these high-powered educational toys will cost you.

Kids, with their alarmingly short attention spans, are as likely to toss these toys back into the toybox as any other. But if your wee one seems to have a knack for all things technical – or if you’d just rather see them learn how to build a device than passively stare at one all day – then check out TC’s guide to STEM toys.

Even though these toys are marketed towards the younger set, I found myself a little envious, wishing I could take a few for a test drive – especially since many of them are modern, high-tech reboots on old standbys from my childhood.

Lego’s Boost Creative Toolbox uses the same classic Lego blocks, but allows you to animate and program your creations.

Several products cross-market with some of my childhood favorites; Dash Robotics has teamed up with Mattel to make Jurassic World robots, and Kano makes a Harry Potter Coding Kit that teaches kids to program a wand that can interact with digital content. There’s even Electro Dough which is basically electrically-conductive Play-Doh that can light up and make sounds. I want!

In fact, a lot of the toys combine arts ‘n’ crafts with STEM lessons. Adafruits makes a marker with electronically conductive ink that can light up circuits and interact with computer programs, and an electronic pencil that synthesizes music. Root Robotic’s little bot can draw pictures and compose songs.

For the more straightforward tech nerds, Makeblock, Evo, Robo Wunderkind, and Wonder Workshop all make programmable robots – a big step up from the “artificially intelligent” Furby’s of my childhood. Sphero’s Bolt is a ball-shaped robot, while Airblock makes a programmable hovercraft.

There’s the Pi-top Modular Laptop that teaching kids coding, and there are even opportunities for kids to build their own electronics; Kano offers a build-it-yourself computer.

The holidays are just around the corner – but whether STEM educational toys will be the next Tickle Me Elmo remains to be seen.

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A deepfakes creator for text so realistic it can’t be made public yet

(TECHNOLOGY) You know about video deepfakes, but the technology exists for doing convincing deepfakes for text. It’s so good that they aren’t ready to release it to the public yet…

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Artificial intelligence is being used to complete more and more human tasks. But as of right now, news stories you read online – including all the articles here on American Genius – have been written by real human beings.

Until recently, even the most intelligent computers couldn’t be trained to recreate the complex rules and stylistic subtleties of language. AI-generated text would often wander off topic or mix up the syntax and lack context or analysis.

However, a non-profit called OpenAI says they have developed a text generator that can simulate human writing with remarkable accuracy.

The program is called GPT2. When fed any amount of text, from a few words to a page, it can complete the story, whether it be a news story or a fictional one.

You already know about video deepfakes, but these “deepfakes for text” stay on subject and match the style of the original text. For example, when fed the first line of George Orwell’s 1984, GPT2 created a science-fiction story set in a futuristic China.

This improved text generator is much better at simulating human writing because it has learned from a dataset that is “15 times bigger and broader” than its predecessor, according to OpenAI research director, Dario Amodei.

Usually researchers are eager to share their creations with the world – but in the case, the Elon Musk-backed organization has, at least of the time being, withheld GPT2 from the public out of fear of what criminals and other malicious users might do with it.

Jack Clark, OpenAI’s head of policy, says that the organization needs more time to experiment with GPT2’s capabilities so that they can anticipate malicious uses. “If you can’t anticipate all the abilities of a model, you have to prod it to see what it can do,” he says. “There are many more people than us who are better at thinking what it can do maliciously.”

Some potential malicious uses of GPT2 could include generating fake positive reviews for products (or fake negative reviews of competitors’ products); generating SPAM messages; writing fake news stories that would be indistinguishable from real news stories; and spreading conspiracy theories.

Furthermore, because GPT2 learns from the internet, it wouldn’t be hard to program GPT2 to produce hate speech and other offensive messages.

As a writer, I can’t think of very many good reasons to use an AI story generator that doesn’t put me out of job. So I appreciate that the researchers at OpenAI are taking time to fully think through the implications before making this Pandora’s box of technology available to the general public.

Says Clark, “We are trying to develop more rigorous thinking here. We’re trying to build the road as we travel across it.”

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