Got some spare time today? How about putting aside that game of Bejeweled Blitz and instead lend a hand in what could be the most important discovery of all time? It’s no joke — the people behind the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project have partnered with TED (Technology Entertainment Design) to create a website where anyone can log on and start searching for aliens.

Called SETI Live, the new project reduces the hunt for intelligent life on other planets to a kind of game — sort of a mix between Foursquare and Where’s Waldo. Once you log on and take a brief tutorial, the site flashes snapshots of radio-signal data. Then it’s your job to identify any suspicious patterns you may spot — a straight line among a sea of random streaks could be ET trying to say hello. Do it long enough and you’ll earn special badges.

The SETI program searches the heavens for extraterrestrials via radio telescopes, examining tiny slices of the sky, one at a time, for signals that might have been produced by a civilization elsewhere in the galaxy. This generates mountains of radio-signal data to sift through — too much for the SETI program to handle itself, especially since public funding has been virtually nonexistent for the past 20 years, and securing private investment has been a challenge as well.

You may have heard of SETI@Home — an app that anyone can download that will lend their PC’s processing power to SETI when it’s not being used. Whereas that program is passive, SETI Live is a way for enthusiasts to actively help in the search for the answer to the question, “Are we alone?” It also has the bonus of not requiring any software installation.

SEE ALSO: SETI Resumes Search for Alien Life
SETI Live was conceived as part of the TED Prize program, which gives $100,000 every year to reward a specific vision from the “world’s leading entrepreneurs, innovators and entertainers to change the world.” SETI leader Jill Tarter won the prize in 2009, wishing for a way “to empower Earthlings everywhere to become active participants in the ultimate search for cosmic company.” Zooniverse, which backs several citizen science projects, also helped build SETI Live.

In our brief hands-on, we found the tutorial to be a little vague at times, but thankfully short. We got the hang of spotting patterns pretty quickly, though, and blazed through several data screens in the hunt for aliens. It gets boring mighty fast, though — it would be served better if they could somehow mix up the data or activities, or even simply change the color of some of the screens. Be warned: it doesn’t appear to be compatible with Google Chrome (Firefox had no problems).

Still, it’s a promising project, and we’re sure there are thousands of astronomy enthusiasts who will line up to participate. What do you think of SETI Live? And how could it be improved? Have your say in the comments.

More About: foursquare, SETi, TED, trending, Zooniverse

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Foursquare is parting ways with Google Maps in favor of crowdsourced maps created by the OpenStreetMap project.

Foursquare announced the change in a blog post Wednesday, explaining its decision to make the big API switch. To power the new maps, Foursquare is partnering with MapBox, a startup which calls itself “a beautiful alternative to Google Maps” and uses data from OpenStreetMap.

“As a startup, we also often think about how we can make life easier for other startups,” the Foursquare blog explains.

Foursquare says it chose MapBox for three reasons: its use of OpenStreetMap, which will continue to get better; it allows for design flexibility, so Foursquare can pick fonts and colors to match the rest of the app; and it’s powered by the open-source Leaflet java script library.

During the company’s January hackathon, one engineer proposed the question “What would the world look like if we made our own maps?” and answered it using data from OpenStreetMap, a crowdsourced global atlas.

Foursquare also sited Google Maps’ pricing as a reason they were looking to make a switch.

OpenStreetMap is one of the largest online group projects on the web. Google’s relationship with the project has thus far been tumultuous. For instance, someone with a Google IP address was found to be vandalizing the project, inputting false information in several cities, such as directing one-way street signs in the wrong direction.

What do you think Foursquare’s departure from Google Maps suggests for the future of digital maps? Do you think this decision will pave the way for more new players to gain traction? Let us know in the comments.

BONUS: Strange and Hilarious Google Street View Sightings


1. A Fleet at the Ready

Take a minute and think about the gargantuan task of photographing every inch of road in the world. Is your mind blown? Now you may understand why Google needs so many cars.

Click here to view this gallery.

More About: foursquare, geolocation, Google Maps, OpenStreetMap, startsups

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Pinspire vs. Pinterest

It doesn’t get more blatant than this. Pinspire is pretty much a pixel-for-pixel Pinterest clone, created by the serial digital ripoff artists at Rocket Internet. It’s a bit obscene just how much of a copycat Pinspire is — from concept to functionality to the cursive-style logo. Will it be as lucrative for the Rocket’s Sawmer Brothers as their other projects, an eBay clone they sold to the real auction site for $50 million or the European deals site that Groupon gobbled up? Or will someone finally serve them with a cease-and-desist letter? If that happens, someone please pin it.

Click here to view this gallery.

In the world of social media, discovering that worthwhile original idea for your app or website is by far the hardest thing to get right. It’s so hard, in fact — and the field so potentially lucrative — that many parties who jump into the field tend not to bother. Why should you create something original when there are so many successful sites and services that you can just rip off?

At least that appears to be the thinking behind many Internet companies whose concepts, web design or apps appear to owe a lot to other, more successful forebears. Once you start looking, it’s not hard to find digital ripoffs. At best, they’re quirky homages inspired by a successful digital brand. At worst, they’re ersatz imitators looking to cash in on someone else’s idea — just a step or two above malware.

Perhaps that’s a little harsh. After all, the humor writer Josh Billings once said, “About the most originality that any writer can hope to achieve honestly is to steal with good judgment.” If you substitute “web designer” for “writer,” he may have been talking about the state of digital design today. After all, it would be impossible to find a design that isn’t at least a little derivative.

SEE ALSO: Top 5 Web Design Mistakes Small Businesses Make

Still, there’s a difference between borrowing some core design ideas and wholesale imitating. In social media, where the essential premise of connecting and sharing with your friends provides a basic architecture, perhaps the line between the two is blurrier than in other fields. After all, Facebook was called a MySpace clone, which was called a Friendster clone before that. But they are (and were) nothing like each other.

While building on existing concepts will always be part of design, so too will mimics, where the cloning is so pervasive and total that the site is nothing more than a copy of the original, merely slipped into a different skin. Here are the 10 most flagrant design ripoffs in social media today, at least to Mashable‘s eye.

More About: BlinkList, Copycats, delicious, DianDian, digg, DZone, Facebook, foursquare, Funded By Me, hacker news, heello, instagram, kickstarter, picplz, Pinspire, pinterest, reddit, scvngr, Social Media, trending, tumblr, Twitter, web design, yammer

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The Hack of the Week Series highlights a new hackathon programming project each week.

You change depending on where you are going. So why shouldn’t your profile photo? One participant at Foursquare’s first global hack day came up with a way to automatically change your picture to match the kind of venue you’re checked into.

PlaceFace, created by Jason Pope and Jonathan Wegener at the weekend-long event in New York, asks users to select profile photos for eight Foursquare categories such as “education” and “nightlife.” When a user checks into a new venue, the app changes his or her Foursquare profile photo to match the venue’s category. Enthusiastic users can also connect their Twitter accounts, so the thumbnails on their tweets change at the same time.

The hack won third place, which means Pope and Wegener are the proud owners of a giant, inflatable remote-controlled shark. It also means they’ll be entered in the global competition, where they have the opportunity to win a boxing-inspired prize belt.

Wegener is no stranger to this scene. At a Foursquare hack day in February, he built what is now a popular app called 4SquareAnd7YearsAgo. It uses the Foursquare API to remind you what you were doing a year ago. Pope, a software engineer at a computer security company, is a Foursquare hackathon rookie. The pair met when Wegener stopped by the hackathon for what he intended to be an hour, and ended up staying the entire weekend.

The team isn’t allowed to update the hack until voting for the global competition is finished, but eventually Wegener says they might update the hack with an option to take photos on a webcam and add more of Foursquare’s 364 different categories — starting with the burrito category.

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Foursquare‘s Employee Number Three, Head of Server Engineering Harry Heymann, took to Reddit Thursday to answer questions about all things related to Foursquare and coding.

Heymann opened himself up to a barrage of queries from Internet nerds who want details on everything from Foursquare’s homebrewed dev solutions to the worst thing about working at the company.

Here’s the condensed highlights of the thread. You can go to Reddit to quiz Heymann on other topics — say, last fall’s epic bout of downtime and the post-mortem that involved an engineering all-nighter and a statement from MongoDB.

What were some of the major technology decisions you made, both good ones and bad ones, which have had the largest impact on Foursquare’s growth?

Harry Heymann: My four biggest technology decisions:

  1. Scala. Nearly our entire server codebase is written in Scala (if you haven’t heard of it, it’s a programming language that is basically what you would get if Java + ML had a baby). This has worked out super well. It enables us to write concise easy to deal with code that is typechecked at compile time. It’s also been a big help with recruiting.
  2. MongoDB. Nearly all of our backend storage is on MongoDB. This has also worked out pretty well. It’s enabled us to scale up faster/easier than if we had rolled our own solution on top of PostgreSQL (which we were using previously). There have been a few roadbumps along the way, but the team at 10gen has been a big help with thing.
  3. Amazon Web Services. Kind of a no-brainer: It’s the default hosting environment for startups these days. Mostly great. I wish the IO (disk) situation there was better.
  4. Lift. A web framework written in Scala. This one is the trickyest. Lift has a lot of cool features we really love but hasn’t seen super wide adoption and it has some rough edges. Still not certain how this will work out in the long run.

What are the best and worst things about working for Foursquare?

HH: Totally cheesy to say, but the best thing about working at Foursquare is the team. We really do have a great group of folks here that are very good at what they do and are all working incredibly hard to help the company succeed.

The worst thing is that Foursquare has invaded my life 24-7. I never stop thinking about it ever. Not being able to turn that off sucks sometimes. Also the pressure to meet our potential is pretty big. Scary sometimes. Don’t want to screw it up.

What kind of internal tools has Foursquare built?

HH: Jason [Liszka] and Jorge [Ortiz] wrote a nifty query DSL that we open sourced a while back called Rogue.

What is your favorite use of the Foursquare API by a third party developer?

HH: 4squareand4yearsago!

Having been involved since the beginning, do you feel there were any disadvantages to being based outside Silicon Valley?

HH: No, not many disadvantages. We had everything we needed for the early stages of our company in NY. We’ve expanded to San Francisco to increase our capacity to bring on great engineers (of which there are many in the Bay Area), but that was only after we grew to a certain scale.

Is it friendly rivalry between you and Gowalla, or more heated than that? I was just wondering.

HH: I think having them around pushed us to build a much better product much faster. Competition keeps you on your toes.

More About: AMA, developers, engineering, foursquare, reddit, server engineering

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We came across a nifty little tool this week that creates an infographic from your Foursquare data.

Built by Stormpixel Studios at a Foursquare Hack Day event in February, the tool creates a simple infographic that displays a world map; your checkin, network and tip counts; your badges; your checkins by category, such as travel, or arts and entertainment; the number of coffees you have consumed and more. (My coffee count says one. Somehow it must have known all those Starbucks checkins were for tea and bananas.)

Try it out for yourself at

More About: foursquare, infographic, infographr, stormpixel studios

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While social media is largely used for its ability to connect people, it also has potential to help antisocial types — as proven by a clever site that tells people when museums, libraries and theaters are least busy.

The site, When Should I Visit?, uses Foursquare’s API to map traffic on each day of the week for about 20 venues in London. People who want to avoid crowds can use the site to make decisions about when to visit.

Since Foursquare doesn’t make any historical data available, site creator Dan W. Williams wrote a program that calls its API ever 15 minutes to make a database. The concept is pretty simple: Since Foursquare tells you where people are, it can also tell you where they aren’t.

Other sites for San Francisco and New York are supposed to launch in about a month, but Williams has no plans to expand beyond that or to try making the sites profitable.

“It’s more of a personal project to see if it’s possible,” he says.

Williams set up the London site at Culture Hack Day — a weekend hacking event for which cultural organizations contribute their data — after someone on Twitter asked a local museum what day it would be least busy.

“It’s sort of this class of act that has become popular lately that gives you this really mundane superpower,” Williams says. “Like there are apps that tell you where to sit on the London underground so that you can get off faster, which doors are nearest the exits on the platforms. This is kind of the same. You can go to a gallery when it is slightly quieter. It’s nothing amazing, but it makes city life slightly more pleasant.”

Image courtesy of iStockphoto, spfoto

More About: development, foursquare, foursquare api, hacking

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Foursquare is valued at $250 million and will “probably” have 10 million users by June, the company’s co-founder told Bloomberg over the weekend.

The story is based on an interview at the MIDEM music industry conference in Cannes, France, Naveen Selvadurai, the co-founder of Foursquare (shown on the left in a recent ad for Gap), also said the company will probably hold another round of financing later this year. A Foursquare rep, however, disputes the report: “When Naveen met with that reporter, Naveen did not comment on our valuation or fundraising plans. We’re not currently in the process of fundraising.”

The interview goes on to quote Selvadurai saying the company currently has 6 million users and “pulls in some revenue from big brands” which include PepsiCo, Safeway and Zagat, among others. The company is not interested in going public at this time, Selvadurai added.

Selvadurai also brushed off threats from Facebook Places and Twitter’s location-based offering, saying “Other sites want to keep you inside the computer while our entire goal is to get you out of the house.”

Meanwhile, the New York-based company plans to double its staff to 120 employees by year’s end, he said. As for funding, the company raised $20 million from investors led by Andreessen Horowitz. At the time, the company was valued at $95 million.

More About: foursquare, naveen Selvadurai

Shortly after CEO Dennis Crowley spoke at Europe’s DLD conference Monday, Foursquare announced that more than 6 million people have registered a Foursquare account. In addition, the company released an infographic celebrating its impressive growth in 2010.

The infographic highlights, among other things:

  • 381,576,30 checkins were made in 2010.
  • A checkin has been made in every single country in the world, plus space.
  • North Korea was the last country to check in.
  • The Rally to Restore Sanity on October 30 was the biggest event of the year, with 30,525 checkins made in Washington, D.C. that day.
  • Food venues were the most popular checkin category in 2010; campuses were the least.
  • MTV, Bravo, the History Channel, Zagat and VH1 were the most popular brand pages.
  • California was the #1 state for gym checkins, relative to total checkins.

[via Foursquare]

More About: foursquare, infographic

Speaking at the DLD conference today, co-founder and CEO of Foursquare Dennis Crowley shared his view on Foursquare’s growth and future, putting great emphasis on the fact that the company is still rather small and that he and his team still have a lot of work ahead of them.

“We are 50 people, and to me it sounds like a huge company,” Crowley said. “We still have a huge fight in front of us (…) We need to stay humble.”

Speaking about the expectations built around Foursquare, Crowley said that there’s a big disparity between how Foursquare is perceived and what it really is. “The misconception about Foursquare is that it’s just hipsters in New York and San Francisco checking in at bars,” he said. “It’s happening all over the world. I’ve seen huge growth in Europe, Japan, South America.”

Crowley also revealed some of the reasons why the Foursquare team is so successful. “The company culture at Foursquare is a lot of fun; our team, they’re not just engineers, they understand how social works (…) this is their passion,” he said.

Responding to a questions from the audience, Crowley weighed in on having a startup in New York vs. San Francisco: “We’ve opened a San Francisco office just to make it easier for the people that live there, but we’ve been doing great hiring talent in New York.”

Finally, Crowley also provided an interesting insight into what he’s interested in besides Foursquare: “I’m obsessed with the idea of social TV,” he said.

Photo by Lisa Bettany

More About: dennis crowley, DLD11, foursquare, location