Don't opt out: click here to learn more about our work.

UTSG: Rebecca Fannin on “Tech Titans of China”

Rebecca Fannin on “Tech Titans of China: How China’s Tech Sector is Challenging the World by Innovating Faster, Working Harder, and Going Global”

BOOK SYNOPSIS: The rise of China’s tech companies and intense competition from the sector is just beginning. This will present an ongoing management and strategy challenge for companies for many years to come. Tech Titans of China is the go-to-guide for companies (and those interested in competition from China) seeking to understand China’s grand tech ambitions, who the players are and what their strategy is. Fannin, an expert on China, is an internationally-recognized journalist, author and speaker. She hosts 12 live events annually for business leaders, venture capitalists, start-up founders, and others impacted by or interested in cashing in on the Chinese tech industry. In this illuminating book, she provides readers with the ammunition they need to prepare and compete. The book includes detailed profiles of the Chinese tech companies making waves, the tech sectors that matter most in China’s grab for super power status, and predictions for China’s tech dominance in just 10 years.

ABOUT OUR SPEAKER: Rebecca A. Fannin is a leading expert on global innovation. As a technology writer, author and media entrepreneur, she began her career as a journalist covering venture capital from Silicon Valley. Following the VC money, she became one of the first American journalists to write about China’s entrepreneurial boom, reporting from Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. Today, Rebecca pens a weekly column for Forbes, and is a special correspondent for CNBC.com. Rebecca’s journalistic career has taken her to the world’s leading hubs of tech innovation, and her articles have appeared in Harvard Business Review, Fast Company and Inc., among others. Rebecca’s first book, Silicon Dragon: How China is Winning the Tech Race (McGraw-Hill 2008), profiled Jack Ma of Alibaba and Robin Li of Baidu, and she has followed these Chinese tech titans ever since. Her second book, Startup Asia (Wiley 2011), explored how India is the next up and comer, which again predicted a leading-edge trend. She also contributed the Asia chapter to a textbook, Innovation in Emerging Markets (Palgrave Macmillan 2016). Her new book, Tech Titans of China: How China’s Tech Sector is Challenging the World by Working Harder, Innovating Faster & Going Global, will be published by Hachette Book Group on September 2, 2019. Inspired by the entrepreneurs she met and interviewed in China, Rebecca became a media entrepreneur herself. In 2010, she formed media and events platform Silicon Dragon Ventures, which publishes a weekly e-newsletter, produces videos and podcasts, and programs and produces events annually in innovation hubs globally. Rebecca also frequently speaks at major business, tech and policy forums. She resides in New York City and San Francisco, and logs major frequent flier miles in her grassroots search to cover the next, new thing.

$24.95 plus HST per person (includes 1 paperback copy of “Tech Titans of China” and 1 seat for the book talk)

Enlightened minds, illuminated research

How the AGO’s art inspires researchers at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre

Enlightened minds, illuminated research

What does scientific discourse have to do with artistic expression? For a research team at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, the answer is “everything.”

We once thought of our right and left brains as separate forces responsible for logical and creative thought, respectively. But scientific progress has shown us otherwise, as mental processes require that the whole brain works together in harmony to approach a task.

Just as the corpus callosum brings our hemispheres together as a band of nerve fibres, so too should science and art harmonize — so believes Dr. Mathieu Lupien, a Senior Scientist at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre. 

Lupien incorporates art into his professional sphere to generate creative discourse between his close-knit team of researchers. He offers a unique approach to team-building by inviting his team to take a stroll through the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Each team member takes the time to walk through and choose a piece of artwork that speaks to them. Lupien then has the team come together as a group to share their chosen piece and engage in dialogue about what inspired them.

“I get to see the world from their perspective and they get to see mine from theirs,” said Lupien in an interview with The Varsity. The process helps the researchers better understand how they see the world through different lenses.

Lupien expresses that this is an exercise in using something creative, like art, to share who we are as scientists. It gives the team a glimpse into each other’s worlds. For example, if a member really enjoys the intricate detail in a piece, we can understand that the fine details they reflect in their own work are something they value. This helps us interpret the work they do in a more meaningful way.

“Our imagination is the only way to explore the unknown,” said Lupien. “We are working in uncharted territory sometimes, so creating an environment that is conducive to open, creative thought is important for our work.”

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

How can students integrate art and science into their own research methods?

Lupien describes that translating scientific works in an intelligible way is an art in itself. Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics can be highly complex areas, full of jargon which can be intimidating for many students interested in the field. Using creative expression is one way to translate complexities in an imaginative way.

He demonstrates this idea in his description of his research on epigenetics: the study of how the activity of our genes can change, without changing our DNA sequences. He describes the genome as six billion letters of DNA that form words that are different in nature. When they are organized into sentences, each of them tells a unique story.

In order to form specific parts of our body, such as muscle and brain tissue, we organize our genome, represented here as letters, in different ways to create distinct sentences. The folding process is guided by epigenetic events, or post-it notes, which highlight the regions of our genome that need to be read.

Perhaps we can say that art relates in the same way. Each stroke of the brush or strike of the pen creates a unique image, and the artist goes over certain areas of the painting with these tools to highlight parts of the piece. Sometimes this disrupts the image, which can create chaos. Other times, this enhances the image with clarity.

Like epigenetics, one must follow these fine lines or broad strokes to understand how the larger image, or genome, has come to be. Lupien emphasizes that fostering creative thought can open a world of possibilities for all walks of life. “Bringing these values into your everyday practice as a researcher can serve to nourish your approach to work,” he said.

Experiencing art can also serve as time for our ideas to incubate, perhaps creating a period of unconscious processing for approaching problems in research. Taking from the famous 1929 works of Graham Wallas, The Art of Thought, incubation allows us to process problems in a manner whereby no direct effort is exerted.

We can optimize the way we process pre-existing knowledge by exposing ourselves to creative mediums such as art. This may lead to new approaches in scientific work. Ultimately, generating a scientific discourse with the expression of art can bring forth creative magic that inspires research. 

“In research, there are two things of value — there is knowledge and creativity,” said Lupien.

“You need to have balance. Never shy away from engaging in creative thought. You never know where it will take you.”

Opinion: We don’t want this kind of Good Samaritan

Donation app to support homeless is divisive and cold

Opinion: We don’t want this kind of Good Samaritan

When was the last time you saw a homeless person panhandling? How did it make you feel? Guilty? Annoyed? Maybe just maybe you wanted to help, but weren’t sure how.

Well, much like food delivery and astrology, there’s an app for that. After witnessing a Black man panhandling, former tech employee Jonathan Kumar created Samaritan, a contemporary mechanism to help homeless individuals. Samaritan offers privileged passersby a way to help the homeless without needing to make eye-contact or use cash. Donations are even tax refundable.

Kumar’s program has two main goals: to provide urbanites with a convenient way to donate to homeless people in their area and to help homeless people develop closer connections with their community.

After two years of operation in the Seattle area, Kumar hopes to expand his enterprise. However, the Samaritan approach is not as good as it may appear and — despite homeless and social inequality crises in Toronto — it is absolutely not a solution worthy of import.

A seemingly straightforward system

Potential donors download the Samaritan app, which alerts them when they pass by a participating homeless person. The homeless participants are tagged with beacons that beam their photo, personal story, and financial need to the would-be Good Samaritan’s phone. In most photographs, program participants wear their beacons around their necks like crosses.

Givers can select the amount of money they would like to send and cue the transaction in a few swipes. The money is then sent to the beacon holders, who can redeem the donation at participating stores.  

While participation in the Samaritan program does not necessarily preclude the homeless from seeking other avenues of respite, it explicitly seeks to help sustain those left behind by mainstream sources of support.

While this may seem like a step forward, let’s take a closer look.

Despite Kumar’s lofty ambitions, the app itself is not particularly popular among the people it was purportedly designed to help.

In one telling interaction recorded in the Seattle Times, a Samaritan employee stood outside a temporary work placement agency, attempting to drum up interest in the beacons. One man, initially intrigued, looked at the demonstrative beacon the employee held. When he saw it, he asked, “It labels me as a hobo?”

Another reason for the program’s low participation rate is the requirements it imposes on homeless users. Not only are their choices and movement restricted, but beacon wearers must attend monthly meetings with Samaritan counsellors, otherwise they will lose access to the money on their account. The disciplinary tool swings between the collarbones of the wearer.

Gatekeepers to charity

Although Kumar has stated that Samaritan does not use institutional vetting processes for potential beacon recipients, he argues they seek out “those downtown that are truly struggling with homelessness and actively are trying to get themselves out.”

But how can they tell who is truly suffering, and moreover, who sets the definition?

Put simply, the donors determine who is allowed to avail of the service. Through the linkage of initial appearance and quick biographies with donations, participants must market themselves to their potential Samaritan. The appearances and backstories displayed on the app become weapons: a spade and a scalpel used to shape the kinds of people others want to give to.

Even if the donation is given, its very form creates other entanglements. The digital currency donated by Samaritans can only be used to buy “the essentials,” as determined by the developers who created the app and the stores willing to work with the program.

And if they do not have a cell phone or a data plan, beacon holders have no way of knowing who donated or in what amount. In order to check their own balance, they would have to find a participating store and inquire.

Siloing social classes

One might argue — and indeed, Kumar and his supporters do — that removing the cash component of roadside donations enables more spontaneous generosity, which in turn leads to more support for the homeless.

However, the giver  not the recipient  clearly benefits more from this cashlessness. It’s not just the removal of financial autonomy from the homeless person that is troubling either — reducing donations to a swipe sanitizes what should be uncomfortable.

Although some might insist that the app genuinely does help create connections, Samaritan actually works to further silo different social classes. Today’s Good Samaritans can give without looking up from their phones and feel better about themselves without actually encountering anyone. The app makes local suffering as distant as possible.

Moreover, valving compassionate impulses off through a quick dash of a digital credit card could reduce the likelihood of givers becoming more involved in long-term aid or advocacy efforts. After all, they have done their good deed of the day.

At the end of the day, Samaritan is a for-profit company, which makes donors pay up to 7.5 per cent of their total donation for the privilege of a painless transaction.

Contrary to many contemporary invocations, the parable of the Good Samaritan is not about financial generosity. In the biblical story, a man is robbed and left bleeding on the side of a busy road. Two travellers pass him by, but the third — a Samaritan — stops. He cleans the victim’s wounds, clothes him, feeds him, seats him on his donkey, and shares his room with him.

Fundamentally, it’s a story of human connection — of messy, visceral sharing between those left intact and those robbed. This is the spirit of giving we must foster. Look to the work of Eva’s Initiative for Homeless Youth, for example, which fulfils the short term needs of homeless youth in Toronto of housing and food while also offering training and emotional support.

Actions rooted in our fundamental closeness, not distance, are the only path toward resolving homelessness and social inequality in Toronto.

Bridging the technological divide in Canadian health care

Electronic Medical Records and patient care

Bridging the technological divide in Canadian health care

In Canada, a battle rages in health care. On one side stands a relatively stagnant health care system, already expensive but comparatively effective, with a legacy of poor technology integration. On the other side, investment in technology has the potential to not only reduce costs but also produce better patient care.  

Initially, further tech-focused investment would make health care even more expensive for the government. In Ontario alone, health care spending equates to 43.2 per cent of all provincial expenditures. Across Canada, health care amounts to about 11 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP), or $4,919 per year per person, as of this year. As a percentage of our GDP, we have the fourth most expensive social health care system of 28 comparatively wealthy countries, falling short of only Switzerland, France, and Norway. However, our above-average spending nets above-average results.

Compared to other wealthy nations, Canadians experience an above-average quality and quantity of health care. Canada consistently ranks highly on the majority indices that measure efficacy, despite having fewer physicians, long wait-times, and less equipment. Canada is ranked first at preventing and reversing debilitating illness, and also boasts above average cancer survivorship rates, above average healthy-age expectancies at 73.2 years, and above-average life expectancies at 81.9 years. These accomplishments have been achieved with our existing low-tech system. For example, we are without a consistent system and centralized database for recording personal medical information or automatically communicating medical files, at times even at the same hospital.

The adoption of Electronic Medical Records

To learn more about Canada’s relationship to health care technology, I investigated Canada’s partial adoption of Electronic Medical Records (EMRs). I spoke with Dr. Muhammad Mamdani, Director of the Li Ka Shing Centre for Healthcare Analytics Research and Training at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto; corresponded with Christina Christodoulakis, a PhD candidate in computer science at the University of Toronto; and interviewed Davey Hamada, a registered nurse in British Columbia.

According to Mamdani, “there seems to be a general consensus that the adoption of tech [into health care] is a good thing.” Christodoulakis’ U of T-based research reflects this: she found that in Canada, about seven per cent of tests are ordered because practitioners are unaware of already relevant results. A central database of EMRs that is used and updated consistently would solve this problem. The benefits of EMRs include improved speed of finding records, prevention of handwriting illegibility, aid in the early identification of diseases, assistance in targeting services based on risk, help with long-term monitoring of patients, and improved immunization consistency.

Hospitals and smaller family practices have been slowly and irregularly integrating EMRs for the past 30 years. Most of these earlier databases were designed by software engineers with little input from medical professionals. This meant that their software was not functional for practitioners — sometimes queries were too rigid or irrelevant information was readily displayed while critical information was hard to find. According to Christodoulakis, “some physicians reported that they sometimes stop using EMRs because hunting for menus and buttons disrupts the clinical encounter and hinders doctor-patient interaction.”

At present, software packages from different manufacturers seldom work together. Mamdani explained that “often patient records have to be printed out and delivered by mail.” This slows down the treatment process and further clogs the system. This lack of electronic communication also exists within institutions, where medical professionals print records for hand delivery. The poor integration of software and communication often opens the door for third-party organizations to perform patchwork to mend discontinuous records together, as is the case with Alberta Netcare and ConnectingOntario. But it is important to note that privatizing health care record management can carry serious consequences for patients and the health care system as a whole.

Though records are currently scattered among hard copies and various software, it is possible to unite the system. As Christodoulakis’ research notes, adopting or changing EMR systems requires “training, maintenance, IT support, system upgrade and data storage, governance and migration costs,” often too expensive a barrier for small and medium-sized institutions. Based on an estimate from 2010, the financial cost equates to $10 billion. But integration of an efficient database of medical records is just the tip of the iceberg.

Addressing the divide

According to Hamada, “health care providers have been in many ways slow to adapt to the technological boom.” He explained, “This is in part due to our education, which is lacking in any content regarding technological innovation and also the lack of foresight in the institutions that we work for.” Hamada’s workplace has not adopted EMRs, seldom uses software beyond email, and the state-of-the-art equipment he uses runs on an operating system that has not been supported since 2014.

For Hamada, adapting to changing tech is easy. But at his workplace, a recent change in the process of ordering porter services, or facility managers, continues to confuse many despite having support hotlines available throughout their upgrade. Mamdani and Christodoulakis both confirmed that some health care professionals are resistant to the technology making its debut in the health care system.

This is in part because people dislike change and re-learning concepts, but also due to a lack of transparency in data use. Hamada reports that at his workplace, data is collected but its use is a mystery. “In order for nurses to see data as a positive thing, there needs to be greater transparency and involvement around changes made based on evidence,” he said.

Mamdani, a renowned leader in health care, has emphasized facilitating communication between disciplines throughout his career. He integrates tech, economics, and data science into his team, and advocates for strong leaders to continue to bridge the technological gap. He believes that this systemic divide will continue to exist until teams learn to find a common language and talk to each other.

Mamdani’s team includes a few data scientists who work closely with health care professionals to build a data-friendly culture. Their research has been able to predict, with 80 per cent accuracy, the length of patient stays. Data science facilitates communication with the whole team and allows a more unified progression for the patient’s care. His team has also been able to predict trends in staffing, which saves approximately $200 million for St. Michael’s Hospital and could save up to $800 million for others.

Technological change, along with all of its benefits, comes with a very real cost. In Hamada’s workplace, the technology remains in the shadows because qualified health care professionals excel at what they are best at — taking care of people. The numbers show that Canadian health care is effective, even without consistent EMRs or databases that communicate. The cost of tech disturbs that status quo. But a centralized database would likely reduce redundancies in health care and improve efficiency. Advanced analytics has the strong potential to push our health care system to better look after us, especially as our population ages.

Improving outcomes and better integrating the health care system into the digital world is an important pursuit — but it must be checked with an emphasis on people and care over all else. In an ideal application, technology would and should improve our ability to take care of one another.

The Varsity has reached out to Campus Health Services, which declined the interview request, as well as the Gerstein Crisis Centre.

In conversation with TD’s VP of Online Technology

U of T alum Sladjana Jovanovic talks digital transformation, path to leadership

In conversation with TD’s VP of Online Technology

In recent years, online technology has shifted its focus to industries such as finance, or financial technology, in a move to innovate outdated banking systems. Financial technology includes everything from mobile banking to investment and financial strategy platforms.

Companies like TD have realized both the impact of financial technology on consumer trends. In fact, TD has recently pledged $4 million toward the Rotman School of Management to form the TD Management Data & Analytics Lab, which will further contribute to advancements in the field of data analytics. The lab is an addition to the Rotman Financial Innovation Hub in Advanced Analytics that encourages students to build on their analytical skills, particularly those relevant to the financial industry.  

The Varsity corresponded with Sladjana Jovanovic, Vice-President of Online Technology at TD and a U of T alum. Jovanovic completed her undergraduate degree in the Department of Computer Science and recently earned her Executive MBA from the Rotman School of Management.

The Varsity: What kinds of projects do you work on as VP of Online Technology and what relevance do they have at TD?

Sladjana Jovanovic: While our customers continue to use our online applications, they are also interacting more and more through our mobile applications. With that, our online platforms are transforming to support multiple channels and put mobile first. It is exciting to drive that transformation.

We are driving the digital transformation for many TD’s businesses including Banking, Wealth and Insurance. One digital capability at a time, we are creating legendary experiences for our customers and building the bank of the future.

TV: How do you think your education at U of T shaped your journey? What experiences led you to pursue tech?

SJ: My path to technology was not a straight one. While I initially considered engineering, as a young woman, I did not have a lot of support. [Furthermore], none of my female friends went into engineering. Instead, I enrolled myself into architecture, which was a good fit based on my interest in math and creative arts.

Two years later, I knew that architecture was not my passion and I decided to give Computer Science a chance. I had mixed feelings about it to say the least as I had never tried coding before. One of my worries was that my creative and artistic side would not be fulfilled. Getting into Computer Science at U of T was a critical decision for me.

Only few months into the program, I knew that I had made the right choice. I learned that it required a lot of creativity to write elegant, reusable, and expandable code and create user-friendly, life-enriching applications. Writing a computer program was like creating artwork. This set a basis for me on how I view technology and why I have such a huge passion for it. Being a part of the technology club has been awesome and I am very happy to have followed my gut feeling and chosen this career for myself.

TV: What would you tell your younger self about pursuing a career in tech?

SJ: Don’t let anyone tell you that you shouldn’t do something because you are categorized in a certain way – a woman, a person of color, an aboriginal, an immigrant … the list goes on. I know that there is nothing I cannot do.

TV: Budget 2018 has outlined some ways Ontario can promote equality and diversity in the workplace. What do you think could be done in the tech industry to better support women?

SJ: This is a very important question that led me to be an active observer and listener, so I can get closer to the issue. I feel that we have to look at the high school period as a time when our children make critical choices.

Several high school students told me that there was a lot of focus on science in their school, and less focus on technology.

If we can empower teachers and high schools to champion technology with all students equally, then I feel more students would consider it.

 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

In conversation with Shawn Malhotra

Toronto’s booming technology sector is promising for students and graduates

In conversation with Shawn Malhotra

Toronto’s technology sector is one of the most rapidly growing industries in North America, with a total of 212,000 employees in the field. This growth can be attributed to Canada’s overall economic growth and Toronto’s strong telecommunications presence, which includes the headquarters of Alphabet and Rogers Communications, to name a few.

Toronto also boasts a large and growing tech startup ecosystem, housing upwards of 2,500 active startups and 18 university-based incubators.

In 2016, Thomson Reuters opened the Toronto Technology Centre to leverage Canada’s highly-skilled workforce to provide customers with technology solutions using AI, cloud computing, blockchain, and more. The Toronto Technology Centre expects to create about 1,500 new jobs in Canada over time. 

Recently, The Varsity recently had the opportunity to speak with Shawn Malhotra, Vice-President of the Toronto Technology Centre and U of T alum, about the tech industry and what students can expect upon entering the field. Malhotra is a leader in deep data analysis, and previously served as Director of Software Development for the Programmable Solutions Group at Intel for 12 years.

The Varsity: You’ve been VP of the Thomson Reuters Toronto Technology Centre for over a year now. What has your experience been like so far?

Shawn Malhotra: It’s been great so far. I spent 12 years of my career at a past employer, so it was the first time in my career I had changed jobs. A big reason why I did that was I wanted to learn about new technology stacks and understand more about big data, cloud machinery, and these emerging technologies. Another big part was that I wanted to be building a new technology organization from scratch in Toronto. I’ve had a chance to do all those things and it’s been really rewarding.

TV: What initially attracted you to the field?

SM: When [Thomson Reuters] approached me, they started to describe some of the things I just mentioned, where I didn’t have a great concept of what kinds of technology problems Thomson Reuters was solving. If we apply those emerging technologies to the problems that matter to our customers, in a way you’re actually helping one of some of the most important decisions in the world get made more effectively. In the case of law, you literally have people’s freedom hanging in the balance. I just thought it would be really satisfying to learn about those things and apply them to some really important problems.

TV: How did your education shape your journey?

SM: I took advantage of a program that allowed me to do my Master of Engineering [at U of T] part-time while I was working. I worked not too far from the campus; it’s one of the advantages of being downtown in Toronto. I spent about four years doing a Master of Engineering [when] I did my coursework part-time while I was doing my studies.

I think it really helped me stay in touch with the research community and [make] sure that I was taking a wide perspective and a broad perspective to the challenges and opportunities I was seeing at work.

TV: What do you think makes the academia-industry partnership unique?

SM: Being immersed in that ecosystem, I think because we have such a breadth of problems to solve, there’s always some way for us to partner or work together. Being in those lab environments, and being in ecosystems like Communitech and institutes like the Vector Institute an academia and industry partnership around AI   has been fruitful for identifying those relationships and bringing thoughts, technologies, and business partnerships as well.

TV: Are you able to commercialize the technology that grows out of these partnerships?

SM: We call ourselves the ‘answers’ company, so we see our role as helping them effectively get to the right answer and employ technology to do that. Everything we do is finding ways to do that more effectively. Certainly, that means commercializing it and getting it that value to our customers. But absolutely, the labs are a good bridge into that academic part of the world and to figure out what we can take from there and commercialize.

Everyone in our technology industry needs to be plugged into research, thinking about emerging technologies, and thinking about how to commercialize it. And not just to make money, but to really serve our customers, which means that we’re solving these unique problems.

TV: What should recent graduates entering this field expect?

SM: I would say the one thing they should expect is the unexpected — it’s a very cliché thing to say, but technology doesn’t give one uniform experience to people. It’s been said a lot, and it’s true that basically every company in the world is becoming a technology company. [Graduates] should expect that they’re going to get choices and they’re going to be asked to learn new things.

To me, one of the most exciting parts of the field is that two years from now, we’re going to need very different skill sets than the ones we have today, because technology will have evolved. Fundamentally, what [graduates] should expect is to continually be learning new things, to be open to new experiences, to be open to different types of markets, businesses, and roles that they’re in.

TV: How can students prepare for the industry?

SM: I look back on my education, and I’m not differentiating equations at my desk, but what I was doing when I was studying calculus was learning how to master interesting, difficult subjects. I think as a student, if you see your role as learning how to learn, that’s great preparation for getting into the real world. It’s an approach of how to be practical with the knowledge you’re applying.

The thing I’d want [students] to prepare for is to turn that curiosity you have, and that ability to learn as a technologist into other parts of your company. The more you understand your customers and your business, the better you as a technologist are going to be to help identify ways to push them forward and help them.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The apps that make us better students

Four students break down their favourite study applications

The apps that make us better students

Hypertabs is The Varsity’s online features subsection about all things internet. Our goal is to explore the depths of the online world and understand how it shapes our habits and affects our communities.


Like planning out your entire life? Say hello to Trello

As someone who enjoys being scared straight by the extent of their own procrastination, I work best when I can see all my tasks laid out in front of me. I’ve learned the hard way that having individual Google documents, calendar e-vites, and to-do list apps all scattered across your hard drive and the cloud like easter eggs is no way to go.

Earlier this year, a good friend of mine recommended Trello and thereby set me firmly on the path to organizational success. A delightful cross between a calendar, a to-do-list, and a Pinterest collection, Trello allows users to create boards for different categories and projects as well as organize information within those boards using lists and cards. With features for deadlines, checklists, and attachments, Trello is perfect for compiling all of your tasks in one place. Also, everything is synced to the cloud; you can use the app for personal matters or share boards with other users if you’re working collaboratively.

The best thing about Trello is its versatility: you can use it for managing a team, planning a vacation, or virtually anything else that requires organizing and categorizing information. As a student, I’ve found Trello to be perfect for keeping all of my deadlines straight. I have boards for schoolwork, job applications, and scholarships, and I’ve set up a queue list for each project according to its due date. When I start working on something, I move it to an ‘in progress’ list; when I finish it, it goes into the archives. And of course, everything is colour-coded to differentiate between projects. I know I’m a huge nerd, but thanks to Trello, I’m the most organized nerd you’ll ever meet.

If you’re looking for something to organize day-to-day tasks, Trello might be less suitable than a to-do list app like Todoist. But seeing all of your work laid out in front of you pops the comfortable bubble of ambiguity that can be conducive to procrastination. For those of us who regularly hand things in 30 seconds before a deadline, Trello might just be the kick in the pants we need to get smaller tasks out of the way before the semester gets viciously hectic. Install the app on desktop and mobile, write those five research papers, and congratulations, you’re a model student.

Teodora Pasca

 

Organizing with EverNote

I am a sucker for all things Moleskine. It’s part of some over-romanticized vision of academia. So when I came across the EverNote and Moleskine collaboration in the U of T Bookstore, I saw it as the perfect excuse to further feed my notebook collection.

The notebooks are meant to be used with the EverNote app. But after purchasing the notebooks, I realized I could use the app with really any notebook.

While the app is simple, I personally love that I can take pictures of my notes and organize them easily. The idea is that you scan the notebooks with your phone, then tag them and organize the pages in file folders on your phone. So when it comes time to study for exams, you’ll have all your notes organized. The ability to tag your notes makes it so that you can search through all your uploads for a specific lecture topic or key term.

Though I am steadfast in my love of taking notes by hand, I am not the most organized. I have too many notebooks and loose leaf papers. At the end of the semester I always end up with a stack of unfiled papers, hoping that I didn’t lose any of my lecture notes. Every semester I promise myself I will be more organized or type out a separate copy of my notes but never do. EverNote allows my handwritten notes to be uploaded to a cloud, giving me a sense of security.

It also has the additional function of keeping all of your lecture notes on your phone and in one place. You can upload word documents to the files, as well as scans. So, if you keep up with it, you should be able to have all your coursework filed in the same place.

I highly recommend this app for students who also prefer to take notes by hand or for students who have one of those professors that don’t allow computers. It might take a little extra time to scan the notes, but it’s a lot less time than having to rewrite them when you spill coffee or lose a notebook.

Chantel Ouellet

 

A website blocker with explicit messages is surprisingly motivating

I am my own worst enemy when it comes to finishing or even starting my assignments. I see the minutes on the bottom right corner of my screen change, reminding me that I am wasting my time, but I pacify my inner guilt with one more video, one more episode, one more scroll on Youtube, Netflix, Twitter, Tumblr, or Reddit.

I planned to stay my own worst enemy, but a fleeting moment of self-awareness forced me to download a website blocker at the beginning of the academic year. This way even if I overrode the website blocker, which I fully planned on doing I could at least have the semblance of working hard.

If my website blocker could talk, I’m sure it would laugh and then swear at my naïvety.

I downloaded Go Fucking Work, a website-blocking extension available for download from the Google Chrome store, for its pleasing aesthetic and amusing profanity. This extension, developed by Toronto-based developer and conversion consultant Alexander Lam, blocks websites blacklisted by the user and redirects them to a page with alternating heartfelt and motivational messages.

These messages range from: “Your dreams are dying. Go fucking work,” to “What the fuck? Go work,” to my personal favourite: “You’re not a Kardashian. Fucking work.”

These messages are written in black Montserrat font against a simple white background that is pleasing to the eye and available in 10 different languages if the user prefers to be told to go fucking work in Hindi.

Go Fucking Work offers the user the option of pausing the website blocking for periods of time that can range from five minutes to 48 hours. It is easy, however, to extend a break or pause for longer than the interval specified if the user doesn’t refresh the page. To avoid this, Go Fucking Work has integrated an option to enable force refreshing, and an option to disable pausing altogether so the user can go fucking work.

Zeahaa Rehman

 

Quizlet is the interactive and helpful tool that all students need

Quizlet is a helpful and free tool that has several notable features. You can use it to create flashcards, study sets, and diagrams. The tool is extremely helpful for visual learners or those who prefer to study on their laptops as opposed to pen and paper. You can use it on your computer or on mobile.

Interesting features of the the app include that it will give you study reminders, offer short and interactive study sessions, and reminds you about due dates. It also shows you your process of improvement. 

If you’re lucky, another user may have already created a set of flashcards with the information that you require in your own class. For instance, many users have created basic flashcards for introductory classes. Since introductory classes usually consider the basics of a certain subject, there is overlap in the teaching material, regardless of the institution.

Several users have created helpful flashcards and study guides for sociology classes such as Sociology of Families, Sociology of Gender, Sociology of Law, and more. If you prefer to make your own notes on paper, you can always use these study sets as a way of making sure that you have covered all of the material that you need.

Quizlet is not just useful for students. Instructors or teachers can create a room on the site and do a live quiz with their students. This tool can be used during review classes or as a fun way to interact with the class.

Quizlet seems to be a popular tool on campus. Why not try it out for yourself, if you haven’t already?

Aisha Malik

You got Bunz, hun?

A look inside the world of Toronto’s online trading community

You got Bunz, hun?

Hypertabs is The Varsity’s online features subsection about all things Internet. Our goal is to explore the depths of the online world and understand how it shapes our habits and affects our communities.


 

“Hey. Are you here for the Bunz trade?”

I remember saying this to the lady standing at the park gate, hoping I would get an affirmative response, thinking how stupid I would look if I didn’t. She smiled with a ‘yes’ and I proceeded to complete my first trade after making my Bunz account two years prior.

This, I soon learned, was a staple interaction in the world of Bunz. I traded a few tokens for some old 35mm rolls of film at the edge of Trinity Bellwoods Park, following the golden rule of Bunz: no money allowed.

When I first downloaded the Bunz app, I thought it was just another millennial fad to partake in — but a good one, given that I didn’t have the funds to purchase such items at full monetary value. Later, I became fortunate enough to learn about the larger implications of a secret trading economy and the impact it’s had on so many Torontonians.

Bunz, explained

Bunz is a web- and mobile-based platform where users can post a variety of their unwanted items for trade. Each profile allows the user to post items they are ‘In Search Of’ — commonly known as ‘ISO’ on the app — to inform other traders what they’re looking for. If you’re interested in an item, you send a private message the owner, and the trading conversation begins.

This platform initially began as a private Facebook group created by artist Emily Bitze, who originally named the group Bums Trading Zone. Bitze told me what her life was like around the time of the group’s initial creation, after she had moved to Toronto: “Though I was happy, I was still frustrated and broke. The cost of living was high and I could barely keep my head above water.”

“It made sense, environmentally and economically,” Bitze continued, discussing her need for the platform. Everyone she knew was struggling with money, and she saw perfectly good things being thrown away on a regular basis — a reality U of T students are not unfamiliar with.

Today, there are nearly 135,000 Bunz users, many of whom use the app for the same reason Bitze created it.

A world without money

Donna Liu, a U of T architecture undergrad and member of the original Facebook trading group, has a running list of all her trades. Among some of her highlights are hummus for a hand knitted scarf, two leftover beers for a pair of Aldo heels, and a $15 bottle of white wine for a couch.

“I think the most awarding was when I did art commissions,” Liu said. “I also got asked to do a sketch as a wedding present, pet portraits of deceased pets, [and] a poster of a loved bike.” The list goes on.

U of T Ethics, Society, and Law student Madelin Burt-D’Agnillo described a chain-trading incident to me: “one day I trade[d] a Slap Chop… then immediately traded with someone else for a Slap Chop.” Their story reminded me of a trade I once did for coffee beans, and how I traded those coffee beans for an old camera immediately after.

The resurgence of a bartering system is a symptom of the reality we are living in today, where students and working class people increasingly have more debt — and more stuff.

“Capitalism’s been ramping up for the last, whatever, probably 40 or 50 years, to the point where people have so much stuff,” said David Morton, Bunz’s Marketing Director.

[pullquote-default]This resurgence of a bartering system is a symptom of the reality we are living in today where students and working class people increasingly have more debt – and more stuff.[/pullquote-default]

Bitze says that the environmental implications are one thing she appreciates most about her work. “Knowing that we have diverted tonnes of potential items from our landfills,” is one of Bitze’s favourite experiences with Bunz.

Redesigning the brand

If you visited bunz.com last year, you would have been greeted with an image of an unimpressed blue troll asking for a password, as if it – the troll – was the only thing that would allow you to cross over into the Trading Zone. “The troll was somewhat accidental,” Bitze said, explaining that the meaning behind the troll “was in the classic sense, like a bridge troll.”

However, there were increasing concerns that the term was alienating; this was understandable given the association with what we now know as Internet trolling. The troll has now been replaced by something more friendly and inviting: “It’s a B, it’s two people together, it’s happy neighbours, and it’s cheeky,” said Bitze.

It’s two buns — or bunz, if you will.

A similar change was instituted over growing concerns surrounding the original Facebook name, Bums. After concerns were brought up that the name was insensitive, Bitze changed it to what we see today: Bunz Trading Zone.

The growth of the platform — now with 13 full-time employees — is largely due to an anonymous angel investor. However, the onset of making money from a platform which is premised on the exclusion of money is something that has generated tension for both the Bunz team and the Bunz community.

Bitze asserted that, for her team to continue the project for the community and expand further, they need the funding. And now they’re “working on something new that’s never been done before,” she told me. It’s a project to be launched by the end of this summer.

When discussing one of her favourite things about Bunz, Bitze mentioned that the support of the community has been “essential to how we’ve grown,” and how this will continue to guide future expansion.

Community

Bunz has provided an opportunity for users to experience the richness of Toronto’s people from an entirely new perspective. The platform has become an excuse to talk to random strangers you would otherwise pass by in the hustle and bustle of Yonge Street.

By taking the time to stop and talk, you can discover an obscure detail of their life, like how they’re willing to trade a contour kit for a collectible set of quarters — one of my best trades yet.

When asked what her favourite trade was, Burt-D’Agnillo replied that it was her “super old wooden desk/chair, because the person who traded with me threw in a bunch of pencils and supplies because she knows I’m a student.”

It’s these little moments of connection with and appreciation for strangers that really make Bunz such a fulfilling experience. And for some, the app holds significant meaning to their livelihood.

“So many days I want to stay in bed. Bunz trades [get] my butt out of bed and forces me to walk,” said Bunz user, kada. kada suffers from chronic pain due to an accident affecting her physical health requiring use of a cane to help her walk. She moved to Toronto to be closer to the St. Michael’s hospital and is now a regular user of the app.

Another Bunz user, bokin, reflected a similar sentiment: “I got to see a part of the city I may otherwise may have never visited.” bokin discussed one of her first trades, where both her and the other trader brought their dogs and she was introduced to the Trinity Bellwoods neighborhood. She said it was “Literally the most pleasant experience I’ve ever had with a complete stranger.”

For bokin, Bunz played a part in overcoming her crippling anxiety and depression “by giving me something to be responsible for and above all – confidence.”

Over time, Bunz became more than just an alternative to Kijiji or Craigslist. It became a platform via which Torontonians and others can interact over collective interests and struggles. The over-250 Bunz-branded Facebook groups around the world are a testament to this community-based sharing culture. U of T students are probably most familiar with the Bunz Pet Zone page for all things pet-related, the Bunz Home Zone for furniture and house supplies, and the Bunz Helping Zone page for really any and every question you have.

It was precisely this Bunz community that allowed user millie7354 to start a non-profit after-school program: “I put up a post asking for boardgame donations and got over 50 responses.”

millie7354 now has weekly after-school sessions thanks to the helping hands of Bunz users.

By talking to its users, I could see that Bunz is more than the resurgence of a bartering system; rather, it’s the resurgence of talking to your neighbours and building a grassroots community.