BBC : The Mantra of Disruption

A piece I recorded for the BBC World Service. Not Reuters content. 

Disruptive innovation is like one of those terms that worms its way into our vocabulary, a bit like built-in obsolescence or upselling.   It’s become the mantra of the tech world, awhich sees its author Clayton Christensen, as a sort of messiah of the changes we’re seeing in industries from taxis, hotels and media. Briefly put the theory goes: existing companies are undercut and eventually replaced by competitors who leverage technology to come up with inferior but good enough alternatives — think the transistor radio displacing vacuum tube radios — or come up with wholly new products that eventually eclipse existing markets — think the iPhone killing off the MP3 player (and radios, and watches, and cameras, and guitar tuners etc.) 

A backlash has emerged against this theory, partly because it’s somewhat flawed — even Prof Christensen himself has misapplied it, as in the case of the iPhone — but also because it’s scary. Uber may be a great idea if you’re looking for a ride, but not if you’re an old-style cabbie. Airbnb is great for a place to crash, but feels like a car crash if you’re running a real b’n’b. And don’t get me started on being a journalist. 

But there’s a much bigger problem here. The tech world is full of very inspiring, bright, charismatic people and that’s one reason I choose to write about it for a living. But it has changed in the past decade or so, undeniably.   15 years ago, just before the last dot.com crash, a tome appeared: The Cluetrain Manifesto, and you’d either read it or you hadn’t. It was a collection of writings by some fine thinkers, the great bloggers of the day like Doc Searls and Dave Weinberger. The main thesis: the Internet is unlike ordinary, mass media, because it allows human to human conversations — and that this would transform marketing, business, the way we think. Markets are conversations, it said. 

For a while we were giddy with the power this gave us over corporations. We could speak back to them — on blogs, and later on what became known as social media. Even Microsoft hired a blogger and let him be a tiny bit critical of things at Redmond. 

Looking back, it was probably the last naive blast of the old dying Internet rather than a harbinger of the new. The language, if not the underlying philosophy, lives on in conferences and marketing pitches. Most social media conversations are harsh, mostly inhuman — we refer to deliberate online baiters as trolls, which I suppose makes them subhuman — and we’ve largely given up influencing the companies we do business with except in the occasional diatribe or flash hashtag full frontal mob assault.  

And more importantly, there is no longer any of that idealism or utopianism in any startup movement that I can see. For sure, we cheer on these players because they seem to offer something very seductive, from free email, calendars, spreadsheets to cheaper rides, stays, music, video and goodies, to shinier bling, gadgets, wearables and cars. And they all sing the same mantra: we’re disruptive, we’re disintermediating, we’re leveraging technology, we’re removing friction, we’re displacing old cozy cartels, we’re doing it all for you. 

The problem is that underneath this lies an assumption, an arrogance,  that technology is a natural ally of good, that disruption is always a good thing, that the geeks parlaying it into products are natural leaders, and that those opposing it are reactionaries, doomed to the scrapheap. 

The result: we’re just getting into a more rapid cycle of replacing one lot of aloof, cloth-eared giants with another lot, who in short order will be replaced by another. Microsoft, IBM, and HP, the giants of when Cluetrain was written, have been replaced by Amazon, Apple, Alibaba, Facebook and Google, all of them as hard to hold a conversation with as Microsoft ever was. And the big players of tomorrow, which may or may not be Uber, Airbnb, Tencent and Twitter, don’t seem particularly interested in a conversation either. 

We need to recover some of that old Cluetrain idealism, naivety, when we thought that what we were doing was building a new platform for anyone to use, to talk back to authority, to feel heard and appreciated — and not just a cult-like celebration of the rugged individuals who dismantled Babel only to build a bigger, shinier and more remote one its place. 

Reuters: With WebRTC, the Skype’s no longer the limit

Something I wrote for Reuters: 

With WebRTC, the Skype’s no longer the limit

By Jeremy Wagstaff

SINGAPORE Thu Dec 11, 2014 4:07pm EST

(Reuters) – WebRTC, a free browser-based technology, looks set to change the way we communicate and collaborate, up-ending telecoms firms, online chat services like Skype and WhatsApp and remote conferencing on WebEx.

Web Real-Time Communication is a proposed Internet standard that would make audio and video as seamless as browsing text and images is now. Installed as part of the browser, video chatting is just a click away – with no need to download an app or register for a service.

WebRTC allows anyone to embed real-time voice, data and video communications into browsers, programs – more or less anything with a chip inside. Already, you can use a WebRTC-compatible browser like Mozilla’s Firefox to start a video call just by sending someone a link.

Further ahead, WebRTC could add video and audio into all kinds of products and services, from GoPro cameras and educational software to ATMs and augmented reality glasses. Imagine, for example, wanting to buy flowers online and being able, at a click, to have the florist demonstrate arrangements to you live via a video link.

WebRTC will be a market worth $4.7 billion by 2018, predicts Smiths Point Analytics, a consultancy. Dean Bubley, a UK-based consultant, reckons over 2 billion people will be using WebRTC by 2019, some 60 percent of the likely Internet population.

Most of these will be mobile. Some versions of Amazon’s Kindle multimedia tablet, for example, have a ‘Mayday’ button which launches a WebRTC-based video call with a customer service representative.

By the end of the decade, consultants Analysys Mason reckon there will be 7 billion devices supporting WebRTC, nearly 5 billion of them smartphones or tablets. Automatic voice and video encryption means web conversations should be safe from eavesdropping or external recording.

FROM DREAM TO REALITY

“The promise is fantastic,” said Alexandre Gouaillard, chief technology officer at Singapore start-up Temasys. “There’s always a problem with timing, between dream and reality.”

Initially championed by Google, WebRTC was adopted by Mozilla and Norway’s Opera Software – between them accounting for more than half of the world’s browsers. In October, Microsoft committed to including a version of WebRTC on its Internet Explorer browser, leaving only Apple as the main holdout. An Apple spokesperson declined to discuss the company’s plans for WebRTC in detail.

Last month, technical experts agreed a compromise on a key sticking point: which of two encoding standards to use to convert video. All sides agreed to support both for now.

Some prominent names are staking out the WebRTC arena.

Skype co-founder Janus Friis this month launched Wire, a chat and voice messaging app that uses WebRTC, and Ray Ozzie, who created Lotus Notes and was chief software architect at Microsoft, is challenging messaging and conferencing services with Talko, an app using WebRTC. Mozilla has teamed up with U.S.-based TokBox to launch Hello, a plug-in-free, account-free web conferencing service within its Firefox browser.

Dozens of mobile apps already leverage WebRTC – including Movirtu’s WiFi-based CloudPhone, allowing voice calls over WiFi. Movirtu CEO Carsten Brinkschulte says WebRTC “gives us a lot of things that are free that are normally very hard to do.”

“A MAGNIFIER”

This makes some incumbents nervous. One is the $2 billion web and video conferencing industry. And telecoms firms are still reeling from free voice and messaging services like WhatsApp and Skype. Even those companies look vulnerable as WebRTC reduces the cost of setting up a competing service.

“WebRTC is a magnifier,” says Bubley, the consultant. “It makes the opportunities bigger and the threats worse, and everything faster.”

Some, though, are putting up a fight.

Microsoft is rolling out a web-based version of Skype that will, eventually, require no extra software and will be compatible with all WebRTC browsers. And Cisco, whose WebEx is king of web-based video conferencing, has been active in developing standards. But, says Bubley, “it’s in no desperate rush to accelerate.”

Among telecoms companies, Telefonica bought TokBox “to learn about the space, and they’ve largely left us to pursue that,” said TokBox CEO Scott Lomond. SK Telecom and NTT Docomo are also experimenting with the technology.

But those championing WebRTC say the technology isn’t so much about challenging what’s available today, but more about creating opportunities for new products and services tomorrow.

Cary Bran, vice president at Plantronics, a headset maker, sees a time when online gamers won’t just be able to see and talk to each other, but feed heart-rate and other sensor data into the game, “making it more difficult or easy based on the user’s level of engagement.”

More prosaically, TokBox is working with banks in the United States and Europe to provide branch visitors with video links to specialists, cutting down on staffing costs.

Such options, says TokBox’s Lomond, only scratch the surface of what’s possible. “I don’t think the broader market has fully appreciated how potentially disruptive this is,” he says.

Reuters: Making cars safer: have the driver do less

A piece I wrote for Reuters. BBC version here

Making cars safer: have the driver do less

By Jeremy Wagstaff

SINGAPORE Tue Nov 11, 2014 4:00pm EST

Nov 12 (Reuters) – As millions of cars are under recall for potentially lethal air bags, designers are trying to reduce the need for the device – using sensors, radar, cameras and lasers to prevent collisions in the first place.

With driver error blamed for over 90 percent of road accidents, the thinking is it would be better to have them do less of the driving. The U.S.-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that forward-collision warning systems cut vehicle-to-vehicle crashes by 7 percent – not a quantum leap, but a potential life saver. Nearly 31,000 people died in car accidents in 2012 in the United States alone.

“Passive safety features will stay important, and we need them. The next level is now visible. Autonomous driving for us is clearly a strategy to realise our vision for accident-free driving,” said Thomas Weber, global R&D head at Mercedes-Benz .

While giving a computer full control of a car is some way off, there’s a lot it can do in the meantime.

For now, in some cars you can take your foot off the pedal and hands off the wheel in slow-moving traffic, and the car will keep pace with the vehicle in front; it can jolt you awake if it senses you’re nodding off; alert you if you’re crossing into another lane; and brake automatically if you don’t react to warnings of a hazard ahead.

How close this all comes to leaving the driver out of the equation was illustrated by an experiment at Daimler last year: adding just a few off-the-shelf components to an S-class Mercedes, a team went on a 100 km (62 mile) ride in Germany without human intervention. “The project was about showing how far you can go, not just with fancy lasers, but with stuff you can buy off the shelf,” said David Pfeiffer, one of the team.

Such features, however, require solving thorny problems, including how to avoid pedestrians.

While in-car cameras are good at identifying and classifying objects, they don’t work so well in fog or at night. Radar, on the other hand, can calculate the speed, distance and direction of objects, and works well in limited light, but can’t tell between a pedestrian and a pole. While traffic signs are stationary and similar in shape, people are often neither.

For a better fix on direction there’s LiDAR – a combination of light and radar – which creates a picture of objects using lasers. Velodyne’s sensors on Google’s autonomous car, for example, use up to 64 laser beams spinning 20 times per second to create a 360-degree, 3D view of up to several hundred metres around the car.

Mercedes’ ‘Stop-and-Go Pilot’ feature matches the speed of the car in front in slow traffic and adjusts steering to stay in lane using two ultrasonic detectors, five cameras and six radar sensors. “This technology is a first major step,” said R&D chief Weber. “(However distracted the driver is), the system mitigates any accident risk in front.”

HOLY GRAIL

The next stage, experts say, is a road network which talks to cars, and where cars talk to other cars. General Motors has said its 2017 Cadillac CTS will transmit and receive location, direction and speed data with oncoming vehicles via a version of Wi-Fi.

Other approaches include using cameras to monitor the driver. Abdelaziz Khiat, at Nissan Motor’s research centre in Japan, uses cameras to track the driver’s face to detect yawns, a drooping head suggesting drowsiness, or frowns that may indicate the onset of road rage.

These advanced safety features are fine – if you can afford them. The Insurance Institute survey found that the forward collision warning systems were available in fewer than one in every 20 registered vehicles in 2012.

In key markets across emerging Asia, says Klaus Landhaeusser, regional head of government relations at Bosch , many first-time car buyers don’t want to spend more than $2,500. For that, he said, “you won’t be able to introduce any safety features.”

Road conditions are also key. “It will be a long time before we have software and algorithms that can see everything happening” on the roads in emerging markets, said Henrik Kaar, at auto safety equipment market leader Autoliv Inc.

And not everyone welcomes this progress. Some drivers complain the technology is intrusive, or is inconsistent. “If a safety feature is seen as intrusive or bothersome, a driver may try to circumvent or disable it,” said Chris Hayes, a vice president at insurer Travelers.

The key appears to be ensuring that while humans remain in charge of the vehicle, they have good information and features that correct the errors they make.

“For a long time, people thought it was an all-or-nothing jump between humans in charge and fully autonomous vehicles,” said Michael James, senior research scientist at Toyota Motor’s U.S. technical centre. “I don’t think that’s the case anymore. People see it as a more gradual transition.”

 

(Additional reporting by Norihiko Shirouzu; Editing by Ian Geoghegan)

BBC: Cars we can’t drive

Let’s face it: we’re not about to have driverless cars in our driveway any time soon. Soonest: a decade. Latest: a lot longer, according to the folk I’ve spoken to.

But in some ways, if you’ve got the dosh, you can already take your foot off the gas and hands off the steering wheel. Higher end cars have what are called active safety features, such as warning you if you stray out of your lane, or if you’re about to fall asleep, or which let the car take over the driving if you’re in heavy, slow moving traffic. Admittedly these are just glimpses of what could happen, and take the onus off you for a few seconds, but they’re there. Already.

The thinking behind all this: More than 90% (roughly, depends who you talk to) of all accidents are caused by human error. So, the more we have the car driving, the fewer the accidents. And there is data that appears to support that. The US-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that forward collision warning systems led to a 7% reduction in collisions between vehicles.

But that’s not quite the whole story. For one thing, performing these feats isn’t easy. Getting a car, for example, to recognise a wandering pedestrian is one of the thorniest problems that a scientist working in computer vision could tackle, because you and I may look very different — unlike, say, another car, or a lamppost, or a traffic sign. We’re tall, short, fat, thin, we were odd clothes and we are unpredictable — just because we’re walking towards the kerb at a rate of knots, does that mean we’re about to walk in to the road?

Get this kind of thing wrong and you might have a top of the range Mercedes Benz slam on the brakes for nothing. The driver might forgive the car’s computer the first time, but not the second. And indeed, this is a problem for existing safety features — is that a beep to warn you when you’re reversing too close to an object, or you haven’t put your seatbelt on, or you’re running low on windscreen fluid, or bceause you’re straying into oncoming traffic? We quickly filter out warning noises and flashing lights, as airplane designers have found to their (and their pilots’) cost.

Indeed, there’s a school of thought that says that we’re making a mistake by even partially automating this kind of thing. For one thing, we need to know what exactly is going on: are we counting on our car to warn us about things that might happen, and, in the words of the tech industry “mitigate for us”? Or are these interventions just things that might happen some of the time, if we’re lucky, but not something we can rely on?

If so, what exactly is the point of that? What would be the point of an airbag that can’t be counted on to deploy, or seatbelts that only work some of the time? And then there’s the bigger, philosophical issue: for those people learning to drive for the first time, what are these cars telling them: that they don’t have to worry too much about sticking to lanes, because the car will do it for you? And what happens when they find themselves behind the wheel of a car that doesn’t have those features?

Maybe it’s a good thing we’re seeing these automated features now — because it gives us a chance to explore these issues before the Google car starts driving itself down our street and we start living in a world, not just of driverless cars, but of cars that people don’t know how to drive.

This is a piece I wrote for the BBC World Service, based on a Reuters story.

BBC: World Without Wires

This is a version of my (and Noel’s) Reuters piece on wireless charging, recorded for the BBC World Service. 

Without question, in a few years’ time our children will look back at pictures of this era and ask us what those little pieces of string are snaking across our desktops, bedside tables, mantelpieces and car dashboards. 

“They’re cables, son. We used them to charge our devices.” 

“Charge them with what, Dad? What had they done wrong?”

You get the picture. In the future, and in some lucky places even now, you don’t need to connect your phone, your tablet or even your car to a charger or wall socket because of something magical called wireless charging. Or to give it its technical term, not having to think about how much juice you’ve got left in your device because you can just lay it on the table in Starbucks, or in the car, or on your friend’s sideboard, and let magnetic induction, magnetic resonance, ultrasound, radio frequencies or whatever technology prevails do its work. 

And there’s the problem. For while this is pretty much a no-brainer for anyone who hears about it — what’s not to like about wireless charging? – the reality is that only a handful of devices so far have this capability, and the chances are they won’t play nice with other devices or chargers. So, while we have the technology ready, the people who matter aren’t, by a long chalk. 

In fact there are three competing alliances, all with their own fancy websites and hundreds, literally, of members signed up, and that’s not including the two or three other technologies that don’t have alliances but claim to have a better idea. 

This is not new of course. We’ve been here before. With video tapes, DVDs, and the first phase of the wireless revolution: when we no longer had to fiddle with telephone wires or ethernet cables and could just yell out: Whats the wifi password? 

Companies think they have the edge, the better technologies, more patents, or they just can’t bear relinquishing a bit of control for the greater good, and so we all have to wait while they wear each other down or die trying. 

Yes, it’s true that wireless charging might seem like a rich world problem. How hard is it, really, to plug a phone into a charger? Well that’s true. And sometimes what is called wireless charging — like the Apple Watch, where you don’t actually plug the charger into your phone, but only because it connects magnetically, surface to surface — isn’t really. 

But the truth is wireless charging could be an even bigger boon to the billions of phone users in the developing world. Think of the Filipinos who traipse to the local mall to charge their devices after a typhoon takes out the power, and sit around waiting for a charger socket to be freed up? Imagine if they could just put their device on a big table, piled on other devices if there’s no space? 

Or the commuter in Nairobi who could drop their phone in a bin when they get on and retrieve it when they get off, a precious few extra percentage points of charge better off? 

Wireless charging isn’t just about cutesy lifestyles any more than wifi and mobile data has just been about empowering lounging hipsters. Wireless charging will eventually untether people from the tyranny of bad battery technology. It will create new businesses and boost productivity — especially from late afternoon to early evening, when surveys show many people run out of battery and the networks go quiet. 

It won’t happen overnight, but it won’t happen at all until the Wireless Power Consortium, the Power Matters Alliance and the Alliance for Wireless Power get their act together and agree on a standard. So write to them, because you don’t want your grandchildren asking what you did to help usher in the wireless revolution. 

Reuters: Pulling the plug

A piece posted today on Reuters: 

Pulling the plug: Apple’s Watch a boost for wireless charging

BY JEREMY WAGSTAFF AND NOEL RANDEWICH

 

(Reuters) – Apple Inc’s embrace of wireless charging for its new Watch may be a defining moment for a technology that’s languished for years amid competing standards and consumer confusion.

Supporters of wireless charging see a future where people no longer worry about topping up their gadgets; are free from tangled power cords and low-battery warnings and where terms like “outlet” and “plugged in” will be as anachronistic as “dialing” a phone.

Users seem to like the idea too: in a recent survey by technology consultancy IHS, 83 percent were interested in wireless charging; in China, the figure was 91 percent.

But, while the technology is largely there to do this, competition to set a global standard is getting in the way of delivery. It’s reminiscent of the Betamax vs VHS videotape wars of three or four decades ago, or the more recent battle between Blu-ray and HD DVD for supremacy in high definition optical disc format.

For now, there are three alliances, but not much to show. Last year, fewer than 20 million phones were shipped with wireless charging built in, according to IHS – less than 2 percent of the billion smartphones shipped around the world.

“There are a lot of bees around the hive,” said Omri Lachman, CEO of Humavox, an Israeli start-up with its own wireless charging technology. “Up to now we’ve not seen a mass aggregation of wireless charging in devices. There’s a good reason for that: three standards for the same form of technology.”

While users clearly see wireless charging – where mobiles, tablets and other devices are charged by laying them on a mat or other surface – as a natural next step, some industry leaders have cautioned that having to still plug in the charging device may prove fiddly for some. “Having to create another device you have to plug into the wall is actually, for most situations, more complicated,” Apple senior vice president Phil Schiller said just two years ago.

 

 

BEAM ME UP …

Maybe, but others say the wireless vision remains compelling. “Look at Star Trek,” says Geoff Gordon of the Alliance for Wireless Power (A4WP), one of the three competing alliances. “They never talk about their batteries dying on any of their devices. If you look far enough into the future we’re looking at a world where you don’t even think about power.”

    But to catch on, wireless charging has to work seamlessly. That means a user can easily find a wireless charging zone and not have to worry whether their device is compatible, or properly connected or even secure from theft.

    Intel Corp, a member of A4WP along with the likes of Samsung Electronics andQualcomm Inc, says wireless charging is a lot like wireless computing. Just as the world has largely ditched network cables for wireless hotspots, so we will leave chargers and cables at home as we’ll never be far from a charging pad.

    But getting there, the chipmaker argues, will require someone with its clout to set the global standard for wireless technology. “History will tell you it’s what it takes to get mainstream lift-off,” said Intel’s Leighton Phillips.

    Among the competing standards, A4WP uses something called magnetic resonance, while the Wireless Power Consortium (WPC) – which includes tech names such as Nokia and Philips – champions its Qi standard using inductive charging, a method which is also used by the Power Matters Alliance (PMA).

They are all variations of the same technology: a coil inside the device picks up an electrical charge from a transmitter coil in the charging surface. Apple, which sits outside the alliances, appears to have used a version of induction charging in its Watch, further muddying the waters.

 

$8.5 BILLION MARKET

    Sparring in a battle for leadership in a market that IHS reckons will be worth $8.5 billion by 2018 – as the technology is incorporated into devices, furniture, cars, restaurants – the alliances fling accusations at one another.

    The WPC accuses its rivals of trying “to benefit from intellectual property they think they own,” in the words of WPC vice president for market development John Perzow, instead of “what benefits the consumer.”

The WPC’s Qi brand is the only one to have made any real headway on the market, doubling its annual shipments to 20 million devices last year. The PMA has a couple of products out, while the first devices carrying the A4WP’s Rezence brand are expected to be shipped this year.

    A4WP supporters say the WPC has had its chance and blown it. “Very quickly the momentum behind A4WP will dwarf anything that Qi has accomplished,” says Alex Gruzen, CEO of U.S.-based WiTricity.

    The PMA, meanwhile, has focused less on the hardware and more on the application programing interface that would allow others to connect to it. Its main backers are companies like Procter & Gamble and Starbucks Corp, which promises to roll out charging surfaces in its U.S. outlets by the end of next year. 

    The groups all agree on one thing: squabbling over standards has kept smartphone manufacturers, furniture designers and car makers from building wireless charging technology into their products as much as they might if the technology’s future were clearer. 

    The Jeep Cherokee, for example, includes a wireless charging pad, and Cadillac has announced plans to add wireless charging in 2015 models – but drivers will only be able to use the feature if they have compatible phones.

There are signs of progress: the A4WP and the PMA in February agreed to ensure their two standards work well together.

But for wireless charging to take off, Intel says, it not only needs compatible devices and charging mats in homes and offices, but also a broader public infrastructure – coffee shops, hotels, malls. 

    “The vision we have and that Starbucks has is that it becomes part of the slipstream of your life,” says Powermat president Daniel Schreiber. “How do we make power come to you rather than have you think about power?”

 

    “NOTHING’S HAPPENING”

    There are other issues. One is that the technology still needs to be easier to use. In some cases, a device can’t just be dropped anyhow onto a charging pad – it needs to be aligned or it either won’t charge, or will charge more slowly.

Also, fitting charging coils into devices isn’t as simple as it may sound. “Coils have a physical limitation that won’t change with size,” said Humavox’s Lachman. “A lot of people have been trying to fit that into the device.”

“All the companies are working around the clock to figure out how to pull in that technology and make sure it works,” says Pavan Pudipeddi, CEO of PowerSquare, which in July launched a charging pad using Qi which allows users to recharge multiple devices. Pudipeddi welcomed the launch of Apple’s Watch with wireless charging. “Others will feed off that and it’s good for the technology in general,” he said.

Meanwhile, the dithering over an industry standard is opening up opportunities for others.

    Some companies like uBeam, for example, use ultrasound, converting electricity to sound and sending that over the air as ultrasound. Others, like Humavox, use radio frequencies, where the coils are replaced by antennae.

    “Our decision to build this technology from the ground up is proving the right choice,” said Lachman. “Wireless charging has been out there for five years and nothing’s happening.”

 

 

(Editing by Ian Geoghegan)

BBC: Consumers’ Caped Curmudgeonly Crusader

This is a piece I wrote and recorded for the BBC World Service. It’s not Reuters content

Until my spoilsport wife told me to stop, I had a brief career battling for the little guy against big corporations and lousy service. I called myself the Consumer’s Caped Crusader.

My theory is this: that as companies and institutions become increasingly digital, so they sacrifice their relationship with the customer on the alter of efficiency. It’s not a particularly new or striking theory. But while most people shrug their shoulders and move on, I don’t. I fight back. Which means that while domestic harmony is not well-served, I do get to see a part of big organisations that others might not. 

And it’s not pretty. 

In a burst of caped canaverals I took on a public transport company, a shoe manufacturer, an e-payments company, a major tourist attraction and social network. Only one ended with me coming away impressed. 

What usually happens is this: I find the service or product less than impressive. I pen an email to the contact I can find on the website of the organisation in question — not always easy — and then wait. And, usually wait. 

If they do get back to me, it’s with some bland response that doesn’t really suggest I’m dealing with a human. In the case of the payments company, I submitted a long explanation of my problem through an online form, and in time received an email that I took to be an acknowledgement, and that someone would get back to me. 

But it wasn’t. It was a list of possible answers to my questions — all of them of help only to someone only had recently been introduced to computing. Worse: at the bottom of the email I was told that if I still wanted to pursue the matter, I should resend my request to someone else. Given that the company hadn’t sent me a copy of the essay I’d submitted in the first place I was not amused. 

Other interactions are more complex. A company whose shoes I’ve worn for 15 years sold me a dud pair, where the inside heel wore out in days. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t just fobbed off with another duff pair, and I wanted to alert the company to the fact they might have a design flaw or a bad batch. Only after I dug up the email addresses of three directors was I able to get a receptive ear — and to their credit, an apology for the time I’d spent trying to get their attention. (‘Thank my wife,’ I told them.) 

The problem is that this all becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. A caped crusader can become a caped curmudgeon in the face of all this obstruction, angry and suspicious. When I wrote to complain to a transportation company that one of their drivers had mistaken the road for a race track two days in a row, forcing passengers to hang on for dear life, I was asked to hand over the number on my stored value travel pass.

I wasn’t convinced that the company needed that data and I was concerned the driver might be able to identify me when I used that card again and turn vigilante on the caped curmudgeon. 

The transportation company was resolute. The data was needed to confirm my story. “There have been many occasions where information given by commuters (detailed as it may be) was not accurate,” the company said.   

Maybe they’re right. But I’m not taking that risk. The lesson, sadly, seems to me a simple one: only the stubborn folk of this world fight their way through the digital barbed wire which organisations hide behind. The result: organisations treat such people as breaches of security, to be at best ignored, at worst palmed off with dead end email chains and treated as nincompoops incapable of knowing what bus they’re risking their life on. 

I have no solution to this, so I’ll quote my wife: Try to go out as little as possible because you always get upset at something. It’s an idea that’s increasingly appealing.  But it’s not quite the wall-less communications we dreamed of when the Internet came along.

Reuters: In democracy and disaster, emerging world embraces ‘open data’

[Updated to fix typos]

From reuters.com, a piece I wrote on the rise of open data in arguably more interesting, or at least directly impactful, circumstances. In this version I’ve added some links to the source material where available. 

Aug 28 (Reuters) – ‘Open data’ – the trove of data-sets made publicly available by governments, organisations and businesses – isn’t normally linked to high-wire politics, but just may have saved last month’s Indonesian presidential elections from chaos.

Data is considered open when it’s released for anyone to use and in a format that’s easy for computers to read. The uses are largely commercial, such as the GPS data from U.S.-owned satellites, but data can range from budget numbers and climate and health statistics to bus and rail timetables.

It’s a revolution that’s swept the developed world in recent years as governments and agencies like the World Bank have freed up hundreds of thousands of data-sets for use by anyone who sees a use for them. Data.gov, a U.S. site, lists more than 100,000 data-sets, from food calories to magnetic fields in space.

Consultants McKinsey reckon open data could add up to $3 trillion worth of economic activity a year – from performance ratings that help parents find the best schools to governments saving money by releasing budget data and asking citizens to come up with cost-cutting ideas. All the apps, services and equipment that tap the GPS satellites, for example, generate $96 billion of economic activity each year in the United States alone, according to a 2011 study. [PDF]

But so far open data has had a limited impact in the developing world, where officials are wary of giving away too much information, and where there’s the issue of just how useful it might be: for most people in emerging countries, property prices and bus schedules aren’t top priorities.

But last month’s election in Indonesia – a contentious face-off between a disgraced general and a furniture-exporter turned reformist – highlighted how powerful open data can be in tandem with a handful of tech-smart programmers, social media savvy and crowdsourcing.

“Open data may well have saved this election,” said Paul Rowland, a Jakarta-based consultant on democracy and governance.

 

 

 

CULTURE CLUB

Indonesia, home to 247 million people and some of the world’s largest Facebook and Twitter populations, has been a few steps ahead in embracing open data. It’s one of eight founding members of the Open Governance Partnership (OGP), a government-led initiative to free up data that now has more than 64 members.

The embrace of open data has had few tangible benefits, but created a buzz and fostered a culture that prodded Indonesia’s election commission to tweak the way it handles vote results.

“There was nothing in this OGP stuff that said you had to put up results from each village,” said Kevin Evans, a Jakarta-based governance consultant. “But it provides a culture where the commission says, ‘why don’t we try a bit of transparency?'”

While it was not allowed to speed up or ditch the manual tabulation of votes – where much of electoral fraud takes place – the commission provided equipment for tallies from nearly half a million polling stations to be scanned and uploaded to its servers, and from there to its website.

Those scans prompted some volunteers to start the laborious process of sifting through them to look for signs of fraud. As the country waited for an official vote count, the rival candidates both claimed victory, based on whichever unofficial poll suited them. Indonesians feared at best a stalemate, at worst fraud and a collapse in public confidence in the election process.

 

A THIRD WAY

This worried Ainun Najib, an Indonesian IT consultant based in Singapore. “I could see a situation where both sides claimed they’d won, based on their quick counts,” he said, adding he feared a quick descent into confrontation. “I saw we’d need a third alternative.”

Ainun reached out to two friends at Google, and between them they cobbled together a solution: a way to automatically download all the scanned files from the election website, and a website where volunteers could easily transcribe the key numbers from each tally into a spreadsheet.

This marrying of open data, programming savvy and crowdsourcing was the key. Within a few days – well before the official result was available – 700 volunteers were able to tabulate more than 90 percent of the vote on a website that could be viewed by anyone.

It was decisive in convincing Indonesians that the election had been fair – a verdict upheld by the country’s highest court last week.

By short-circuiting the long and fraught manual tallying process, it played a “very important” role in restoring public faith in the process and deterring fraud, said Marcus Mietzner, associate professor at the Australian National University. “It allowed the media and citizens to check whether data was manipulated as it travelled from the polling station to the centre. This had never happened before.”

At a ceremony honouring inspiring young leaders last week, Indonesia’s President-elect Joko Widodo thanked Ainun and his colleagues for helping make the election more transparent.

 

HASHTAGGING A TYPHOON

It’s not the first time open data and crowdsourcing have been used in elections, but it’s probably the most decisive. And it hints at the potential if officials, geeks and others play their part in leveraging open data to take on the big issues of the day.

“The idea is we can see the data of the state and do things with it, and that expertise doesn’t just live inside bureaucracies,” said Tim Davies, a researcher at the World Wide Web Foundation who is compiling a report on open data in developing countries. “These are powerful ideas and important ones for building new visions of how we do governance.”

It might not just be politics.

Neighbouring Philippines, another founder member of the OGP, combines open data with social media and crowdsourcing to minimise the impact of typhoons and storms that ravage its shoreline. Twitter users are encouraged to label their messages with specific hashtags, for example, making it easier for relief officials to quickly identify those who need help.

“That’s been a very big deal,” says Patrick Meier, who works with UN and Red Cross organisations on using crowdsourcing and open data in crises, and is now working with Manila-based start-up Rappler to better predict where help might be needed.

 

POLITICISATION

But Indonesia and the Philippines are outliers in Asia.

The Asian Development Bank website, for example, contains a single reference to open data, against the World Bank’s more than 85,000.

Singapore, despite describing data as a “natural resource”, has been cautious, and it has taken open data evangelist Daryl Arnold a couple of years to help persuade officials and executives to free up significant chunks of data for programmers to build apps around.

He points to dozens of apps as evidence of progress, including a recent ‘hackathon’ where programmers explored 65 million rows of data released by port-related companies and agencies to figure out how to make Singapore’s port more efficient. One problem, he said, was that despite technological advances there is often an 8-hour delay between when a ship is due to arrive and when it actually berths – disrupting the mini-industry of tugs, cleaners and caterers that serve such vessels.

While Singaporean agencies and businesses warm to the idea of freeing up data, Arnold cautions that it must be used responsibly. “It’s still critical that people use it in a respectful fashion,” he says.

Indeed, the very success of open data in Indonesia’s election may give pause for thought among more conservative countries of Asia.

Waltraut Ritter, co-founder of Opendata Hong Kong and a researcher on the knowledge-based economy, reports a tension over open data in some less developed countries, where officials worry advocates would focus solely on issues like corruption.

“In developed countries, data and information is seen more as an ingredient or commodity for everything you do whereas in Asia everything around information and data can easily be politicised,” she said.

“There’s so much more baggage in terms of about how people think about information.” (Editing by Ian Geoghegan)

BBC: The Decline of Self Expression

Here’s a BBC piece which the World Service broadcast recently. This isn’t Reuters content.

It’s taken us a long time to get to here, but I think I can safely declare us as, dextrously speaking, back before the caveman.

If we had stumbled into your average cave in about 40,000 BC, we might have chanced upon someone drawing on his bedroom wall, as it were, mixing ochre, hematite and charcoal. We might call this the dawn of manual input of user generated content.

Avail yourself of public transport these days and the best you’ll likely see would be a few people swiping upwards on their mobile screen in a now-familiar gesture meaning — I’m reading about my alleged friends on Facebook to check they’re not doing anything as exciting as I am.

You might, if you’re lucky, see someone actually trying to input some user generated content. A caveman would notice with some surprise that this is not as easy as it was in his day. One old fella I saw laboriously typing a missive on his iPad, tapping out each letter with one finger of his left hand, his right hand holding the device. Indeed, for the most part that is how people write on their mobile devices. Some have physical keyboards, but these are an endangered species.

Why is this a problem? Well, let me count the ways. Firstly, it’s kind of distressing to see people tap away at their screens like hens. Fifty years ago we’d have been lovingly writing letters, poems, diaries in longhand, dipping our quills in ink. Or at least gazing out the window composing poetry in our head.

The other reason is that we think we’re clever, and that somehow each iteration of technology is an advance. It’s an advance for people who make money out of us buying these devices, plugging them into a network and sharing pictures of frowning cats. It’s not an advance in terms of what we’ve come to call interfaces – of making it easier for us to convey our feelings, thoughts and mental creations from our head to others via a permanent or semi-permanent canvas.

In that sense it’s quite a retreat. We’re basically using a century-old technology — the QWERTY typewriter — to enter our thoughts into a device that’s more powerful than the one which put men on the moon. On a keypad the size of a matchbox. And on a piece of glass. That isn’t the sound of keys being hit, it’s the sound of cave people laughing at us.

One of my colleagues feels it necessary to add an apology to the bottom of his overly short emails from his mobile phone, I’m told: apologies if I sound terse, I’m not. I’m writing this on my phone. I can think of no greater indictment of our devices than having to apologise because entering text into them is so fiddly they don’t allow us to express ourselves adequately.

Now the thing is, it’s not all like this. Apple have recently done another splendid video ad extolling all the wonderful applications other people have come up with for their iPads and iPhones. Architects, artists, marine-debris experts, all love the devices for the things they can do with them.

Which is great. But that doesn’t really help the 99% rest of us who are stuck trying to use an anachronistic technology to express ourselves in words. Yes, there’s voice recognition. Yes, there’s software that lets us swipe letters across a keyboard. But there’s no getting away from the fact that mobile devices were not made for writing. Just one percent of changes to Wikipedia articles are done on a mobile device, according to the NYT.

It’s time we recognised a sobering reality: while we blithely talk about this being the age of user generated content, the reality is that very little of that is actual text, arguments, thoughts etc strung together via words. Instead it’s photos, videos, comments and emoticons, or just passing along other people’s content. We may not all be writing with quills, but then again, we’re not exactly writing, either.

When was the last time you did more than click, swipe or pinch on your mobile device?

LinkedIn scam comes full circle, by pretending to be LinkedIn

LinkedIn don’t seem to be taking seriously the extensive use of their network by scammers, as I went on about here. Maybe this will make them change their mind: use of their own company in a scam profile (might not be up long, see screenshot.)

The Jeffrey Westwood in question is a stock photo from Thinkstock used in a number of places, such as this website focused on building sales leaders, and this insurance website.

I’m going to reach out to see whether LinkedIn are taking this kind of thing more seriously, given that not only could a simple algorithm catch these kinds of profiles, but that by using LinkedIn as his company the scammer should have set off other alarm bells somewhere in a LinkedIn cubicle (“Does anyone know this Jeffery Westwood fella?” “Nope. Must be new.”)

[Update: LinkedIn appear to have removed the profile in response to my query, but not answered my questions. Will try again.]