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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 February 2007, 08:31 GMT
Web apps tracking users attention
By Andrew Gruen
BBC News

Future of Web Apps
The Future of Web Apps conference discussed how to take advantage of users attention

The biggest names in the web 2.0 movement were out in force in London this week to discuss the future. Investing in start-up firms and the use of online data were the key talking points of the Future of Web Applications conference.

Futuristic, bass-and-synth heavy music, Apple MacBooks, thin smartphones and DSLR cameras were out in force - the chicest geeks of the web had arrived in London.

Bloggers booed the conference planner when he announced that wi-fi wouldn't be free. And again when the paid-for connection buckled under the stress of their use.

This year's Future of Web Applications conference was the second time developers had gathered in London to discuss the future of their trade - one that's rapidly growing by all accounts.

Web applications are interactive pieces of software that run inside of web browsers and save data back to the servers they run on. This makes them available from any internet-connected computer.

Major software makers like Microsoft and Google now make web applications, but the market has always had a strong independent culture, with start-ups going big - like the $1.6bn (820.3m) buyout of video sharing site YouTube by Google - or dying out all the time.

Though smaller start-ups had a harder time attracting money after the dot com bust, according to Mike Arrington - who runs TechCrunch, a prominent blog on web applications - they are once again finding investment money.

"Last year we saw $600m (307.6m), at least, invested in web 2.0 start-ups," he said.

"That's a lot of money, particularly since most of these start-ups can be created for $100,000 (51, 268) or $200,000 (102,537) at most."

Spying on yourself

Bradley Horowitz, Yahoo vice president of advanced development division
We're basically allowing every Flickr user to become a curator or editor, whether they know it or not.
Bradley Horowitz
Yahoo vice president
A common theme throughout many of the presentations was how web applications are putting so-called attention data to use.

Attention data are bits of information about how human beings choose to interact with software, be it on the net or not.

"When you pay attention to something, or when you skip it, data is created," Matthew Ogle, of social music site Last.fm said.

His site collects attention data from its users on what songs they listen to, and just as importantly which ones they don't, to make new music recommendations.

Though people usually have an aversion to spyware - programs that track what they do and send it to a company - Mr Ogle said people are willing to use attention trackers, "myware," to spy on themselves because combining the attention data of many users is beneficial.

Usually, recommendation sites require users to enter the music they like. Attention gathering software tracks preferences transparently, meaning more data is created, thus improving the quality of recommendations for all users.

"With attention data, someone can be sitting back and listening to a bunch of CDs and they're basically passive producers," he said.

This is critical for the success of most web applications, as community and social interactions between users are often key features.

Defining 'interestingness'

Flickr, a photo sharing service owned by Yahoo, uses attention data to determine what pictures are more interesting to users by measuring "organic activity in the system," said Bradley Horowitz, the vice president of Yahoo's advanced development division.

Your attention data is yours, how you interact with Digg, that's all your own information
Kevin Rose
Digg.com founder
"We looked at how many times was a photo commented on, viewed, blogged about, and saved as a favourite," he said.

"We're basically allowing every Flickr user to become a curator or editor, whether they know it or not."

Mr Horowitz also said this is a good way of measuring the quality of a picture because these heuristics are accurate; it's very hard to con an attention-based system.

"There was no, 'come vote for my photo and I'll vote for your photo,' there was no spam trying to trick people into going to a photo," he said.

"Pretty much, people did what they always did in Flickr, they moved around and looked at things and shared things with each other."

'Plays well with others'

As more web sites collect and use attention data, savvy users are looking for ways to move that information from one service to another.

Kevin Rose, the founder of Digg, a site that lets users vote for or against ("digg" or "bury") news stories of interest, said his company is tracking attention data to make users more aware of other people with similar interests.

"We want to show users as they shift their interest from one story to another because there are these whole streams of individuals who gather around stories, that don't know they're moving their interest together, but they are," he said.

Mr Rose added that one of the things his company believes in is that it has to "play well with others." Thus, he says, making users attention data exportable to other services is key.

"Your attention data is yours, how you interact with Digg, that's all your own information," he said.

"We will eventually provide a tool that allows you to export all that and take it with you."

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