Taxi Dating Apps?

I’ve been meeting a better class of taxi driver lately. It’s been made possible by something called GrabTaxi, which I have begun to think of as a dating app for passengers and taxi drivers.

Of course, it’s not really, that would be weird. But it kind of is.

It’s just one of many apps and services across the world seeking to make the process of booking taxis easier. At one end of the scale there’s Uber, which aspires to allow anyone to be a taxi driver, matching car and driver with passenger. At the simpler end are apps like GrabTaxi, which offer taxi drivers another way to take bookings beyond their usual dispatcher.

Prospective passenger and cabbie install the app, and the app does the rest.

There’s a lot that’s interesting about all these apps, as they contribute to making what can be a very a frustrating experience more efficient. Eventually, it’s likely they’ll change what we think of as a taxi ride: imagine a world where every car could offer taxi-like services, driven either by their own or someone who rents them. Taxi companies and the authorities which regulate them look set for a bumpy ride.

But that’s not here yet, and anyway, I’m more interested in a different kind of benefit: providing a way for passengers and taxi drivers to have more say in who they share a car-ride with.

Think about it: it’s kind of weird that we place so much stock in safety on the roads but entrust our lives with strangers — either driving or sitting in the back. In some countries it’s like playing Russian roulette.

But even in supposedly safe places like Singapore it’s a bit of a raffle. As anywhere, Singapore cabbies are a motley bunch, ranging from those you’d happily take home for tea to those you wouldn’t, er, share a car with, let alone drive it. It’s not that they’re deliberately trying to kill you, but you sometimes get the feeling they’d rather you weren’t really there. Rides can vary from stony silence to being a captive audience for angry tales of woe or pet enthusiasms.

I just spent a good half an hour in one cab listening to the cabbie’s collection of CD sermons from a charismatic preacher called Justin. It was OK until he started extolling the virtues of the birch on one’s offspring, complete with sound effects. I made my apologies and alighted.

This is where apps like GrabTaxi come in. There’s something about downloading and installing an app that seems to appeal to a classier kind of cabbie: on each occasion I’ve had need of their services, each has been a joy, if a tad eccentric.

One young man we’ll call Dave took us the airport the other day in car decorated like his bedroom, or what I imagine it to look like, obviously we didn’t get invited back. It was black, like his Iron Maiden t-shirt, complete with laced black curtains that made it feel like a cross between a heavy metal shrine and a coffin. In a nice way. Dave himself was charming.

This is the thing, you see. The great thing about first adopters of technology is that they all have something in common — in this case a taxi app. I the passenger have something to break the ice with, while they — and I’m trying not to generalise here — presumably quite enjoy their job and want to do more of it. With some taxi drivers that is not always the case: many, when they’re not actually trying to kill you, will spend a lot of the ride complaining about pretty much everything: the government, the taxi company, other drivers, life in general.

Not so early adopters. They have a more positive outlook on life. Hence this sense that the usefulness of GrabTaxi is less about finding a taxi, than finding a taxi driver who can get me from A to B and not either kill me or make me want to kill myself before we get there.

Of course, all this is incidental to apps like GrabTaxi. Their goal is to match taxi and passenger based on availability, not on compatibility. But that’s where I think they’ve missed a trick. Add a few tweaks to their app and they could allow passengers to choose cabbies based on their likely conversation topics, attitudes to issues of the day, history of comments from other passengers, whether they help with pushchairs and shopping. And vice versa: passengers, too, could get rated by cabbies.

It might encourage both parties to put on a better show.

And who knows? A few of us might get invited home for tea.

This is a longer version of a piece I’m recording for the BBC World Service. I no longer upload the podcasts here because of time constraints, but they can usually be found from time to time at the tail-end of the Business Daily podcast available here. While I’m a staff correspondent at Reuters, this is not written for Reuters.

Digicel takes on the big boys in Myanmar

Here’s a piece I wrote about the, for some somewhat obscure, Digicel and its efforts to win a slice of Myanmar’s mobile pie. You can read the rest here.

SINGAPORE, April 29 | Sun Apr 28, 2013 4:54pm EDT
(Reuters) – Cellular operator Digicel Group Ltd jumped into Myanmar early and big, hiring staff, funding local sports, negotiating land deals for thousands of cell tower sites and signing up hundreds of partners for retail outlets.
The strategy helped propel it onto the shortlist for a mobile licence in one of the world’s last mobile frontiers, putting an operator that ranks 65th globally in terms of customers up against giants such as Vodafone Group Plc.
Whether its strategy pays off or not, industry insiders say, Digicel, largely unknown outside the Caribbean and some Pacific islands, has shaken up a usually conservative industry.
“They have been a disruptive force,” said Roger Barlow, a Hong Kong-based telecommunications consultant who has worked in Asia for more than 25 years. “Some of the big guys tend to look down their noses at them but they shouldn’t because they’re becoming a credible player.”
Myanmar this month short-listed 12 consortia for two licences it plans to grant foreign operators in late June. The government wants to expand mobile penetration from less than 4 percent to up to 80 percent by 2015-16.
While Digicel is up against behemoths such as Vodafone, China Mobile Ltd and Telenor ASA, several other big players failed to make the list – among them South Korea’s SK Telecom Co Ltd and Egypt’s Orascom Telecom Holding SAE.

Singapore startup Viki aims to take local TV global

Viki has long interested me and their deal with Warner offered a news peg: 

Who would want to watch a South Korean soap that was a flop back home?

Lots of people, it turns out – something that Singapore-based startup Viki feels vindicates its business model: an ad-supported streaming TV and movie site where unpaid fans add the foreign subtitles.

“We call it content arbitrage,” said Razmig Hovaghimian, Viki CEO and co-founder. “Ninety percent of content is trapped within borders. We’re taking things that aren’t travelling and making them go places.”

The service plays on a number of trends both in Asia and worldwide: a passion for watching video over the Internet; a growing interest in content from other countries; and the emergence of more sophisticated software to spread the burden of laborious tasks like subtitling.

Viki provides a platform that pulls together two traditional strangers: broadcasters and other video producers who license out content to territories where there are no existing rights with local broadcasters, and volunteer “fansubbers” who translate and write subtitles in any language they want.

Viki then inserts ads and provides the streaming service, and shares the ad revenue with the broadcasters.

Take, for example, that Korean flop, “Playful Kiss”. Ratings sank below 5 percent when it was aired during primetime in Korea in 2010, says Hovaghimian, when a top drama might capture up to 30 percent of viewers. But on Viki it topped the site’s charts for several months and was translated into 56 languages.

The company behind the show made “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in ad revenue and was able to secure rebroadcast deals with 10 countries it would otherwise never have reached, Hovaghimian said. The broadcaster wasn’t eating into existing audiences, it was finding value in new ones. “We’re increasing the size of the pie for you, we’re not cannibalizing,” he says.

Rest of the story: Singapore startup Viki aims to take local TV global | Reuters

Inside the Web of Things

This is a slightly longer version of a piece I’ve recorded for the BBC World Service

I’ve long dreamed of an Internet of things, where all the stuff in my life speaks to each other instead of me having to the talking. The vision is relatively simple: each gadget is assigned an Internet address and so can communicate with each other, and with a central hub (my, or my computer, or smartphone, or whatever.)

The most obvious one is electricity. Attach a sensor to your fusebox and then you can see which or your myriad appliances is inflating your electricity bill. Great idea! Well sort of. I found a Singapore-based company that was selling them, and asked to try one out. It was a nice, sleek device that promised to connect to my computer via WiFi and give me a breakdown of my electricity consumption. Woohoo.

Only it never worked. Turns out the device needed to be connected to the junction box by a pro called Ken, who tried a couple of times and then just sort of disappeared. I don’t mean he was electrocuted or vaporized, he just didn’t come back. The owner of the company said he didn’t really sell them anymore. Now the device is sitting in a cupboard.

Turns out that Cisco, Microsoft and Google tried the same thing. The tech website Gigaom reports that all three have abandoned their energy consumption projects. Sleek-looking devices but it turns out folk aren’t really interested in saving money. Or rather, they don’t want to shell out a few hundred bucks to be reminded their power bills are too high.

This might suggest that the Internet of things is dead. But that’d be wrong. The problem is that we’re not thinking straight. We need to come up with ways to apply to the web of things the same principles that made Apple tons of cash. And that means apps.

The Internet of things relies on sensors. Motion sensors which tell whether the device is moving, which direction it’s pointing in, whether it’s vibrating, its rotational angle, its exact position, its orientation. Then there are sensors to measure force, pressure, strain, temperature, humidity and light.

The iPhone has nearly all these. An infrared sensor can tell that your head is next to the phone so it can turn off the screen and stop you cancelling the call with your earlobe. (The new version can even tell how far away you from the phone so it can activate its voice assistant Siri.)

But what makes all this powerful is the ecosystem of third party applications that have been developed for the iPhone. Otherwise it’s just a bunch of sensors. There are 1000s of apps that make use of the iPhone’s sensors–most of them without us really thinking about it.

This is the way the Internet of things needs to go. We need to stop thinking boring things like “power conservation” and just let the market figure it out. Right now I want a sensor that can tell me when the dryer is spinning out of control, which it tends to do, because then it starts moving around the room. Or help me find my keys.

In short, the Internet of things needs to commoditize the sensors and decentralize the apps that make those sensors work. Make it easy for us to figure out what we want to do with all this amazing technology and either give us a simple interface for us to do it ourselves, or make a software kit that lets programmy people to do it for us.

Which is why some people are pretty excited about Twine, a bunch of guys from MIT who are working on a two and a half inch rubber square which connects to WiFi and will let you program it via a very simple interface. Some examples: hang it around your infant’s neck and get it to send you a tweet every time it moves.

It may not be rocket science, but if you’ve got an infant-wandering problem it could be just what you needed.

The Fate of New Acquisitions: Whither or Wither?

By Jeremy Wagstaff

I’m writing this on a Windows PC using a great piece of Microsoft software called Windows Live Writer. And that’s only part of the problem.

As you no doubt know, Microsoft have announced they bought Skype, the Internet telephony company, for $8.5 billion. You’ll have to look under a lot of stones to find someone who thinks this is a good deal for Microsoft. Skype made $20 million last year on revenue of $860 million, posting a net loss of $69 million because of interest expenses. In short, this is not a company about to fill Microsoft’s coffers with dosh.

Whenever a big company goes on a buying spree I reach for my gun and head for the hills. These things never end well. A few weeks back we heard about Cisco buying and then killing Flip, those great little pocket cameras so simple to use people actually use them. I used to keep a list of these acquisitions, because I naively used to think that a big company buying a smaller one was a happy ending. I’ve nearly always been proved wrong.

Yahoo bought a browser bookmarking service called delicious that they parked in a siding until eventually selling it, a few weeks back, to someone who actually seems to understand the product. In fact a fun game is to quiz Yahoo PR people about the state of their company’s lesser known products and count how many “I’ll have to get back to you on that one” responses. I’ll give you a head start: Ask about Konfabulator, a sort of desktop widgets program which was excellent, but has quietly withered on the Yahoo vine. The developer’s blog hasn’t been updated since 2007.

Yahoo are probably the most egregious offenders but everyone does it. Google boughtJaiku, a twitter-like service that was better than twitter, but have done precisely nothing with it. Nokia bought dopplr, a social networking service for people who travel, and have done precisely nothing with it. (Product blog hasn’t been updated since September 30 2009, two days after Nokia bought it.)

So why do it? Buying companies makes people money, somewhere in the chain. It disguises ineptitude, or it is what is called a defensive play: I’ll buy it so you can’t.

The Skype deal neatly illustrates Microsoft’s problem is a simple one: It lacks direction. It doesn’t seem to know what it wants to do so it creates a new brand, a new product, a new division—often out of an old one. The product I’m writing this on is part of (frankly the only good part of) the Windows Live array of products—whatever that is; I’ve never quite figured that part out. (Type live.com into your browser and something different seems to happen each time; now it’s a sort of stream of consciousness page that’s more of a stew of Microsoft’s various offerings. ) Windows Live Writer was part of a product Microsoft bought called Onfolio; it has survived, somehow, though few people seem to know about it outside a very narrow group of enthusiasts.

And here’s the rub. Microsoft has no idea what to do with all these products it spews out or inherits, so it forgets about them. Most of you know that Hotmail and Bing are Microsoft products. But how about Lync? Or Kin? Anyone remember Zune? And what is the difference between Windows Live and Windows Live Essentials, for example? Or Windows Messenger, Office Communicator, Windows Live Messenger and MSN Messenger? Or Sync Center, Live Mesh, SkyDrive, FolderShare and Live Sync?

No, I’m not sure either.

Go to Windowsmarketplace.com and you’ll be told that “Windows Marketplace has transitioned from an ecommerce site to a reference site.” Confused yet? Go togetpivot.com, the website of what was billed a year or so back as “the most ambitious thing to come out of Live Labs” and you’ll get directed to, er, bing.com. Live Labs itself was disbanded a few months later. Now old links to Live Labs go to bing.com, which was where those members of the team ended up that didn’t quit. Out of the 14 projects initiated by the lab counted on Wikipedia, all but five are dead. Of those, only a couple seemed to still have any life in them.

When a company diverts a link from one of its own press releases barely a year old to, effectively, nowhere, it’s a pretty good sign that’s where the vision has gone too. This was after all Microsoft’s big research team—at least the most exciting one (Microsoft spends about $9 billion per year on R&D, according to Jean-Louis Gassée, a French analyst.) Microsoft products seem to get lost in a labyrinth of confusing branding, branching and segmentation tunnels, confusing and demoralizing the user to the degree they throw up their hands and go buy a Mac.

Not I. I know about Microsoft products because I use them. A lot. And the more I usemy Mac the more impressed I am with parts of Windows 7.  The problems with the operating system could be fixed in an afternoon: Watch a couple of users try it out and then ask them what was missing. Build those bits into a new version, ditch the trash and you’re good to go. (Some clues: something like iPhoto but better than Photo Gallery for handling photos. Something like iMovie but not Movie Maker. Apple’s products all come pre-installed. Microsoft’s are a confusing, lengthy and intrusive download and reboot away. Oh, and something half way between Microsoft Word ($200 or thereabouts) and the freebie WordPad; Apple’s equivalent Pages costs $20. It’s not as good as Word, but it’s a 10th the price.)

So where is Skype going to fit into all this? Well, the problems start with Skype itself. Since eBay bought it in 2005 it has been something of an orphan, passed around with little idea of what its future might be. It wasn’t always thus. I drank the Kool-Aid back in 2005, and thought like others it was going to change the way we communicated and did business online. I joined the vision of a world where everyone from clairvoyants to business consultants (ok, that’s not such a wide swathe) would offer services over Skype. Audio, text, video, you name it.

That hasn’t happened. For most people it is just a way to avoid paying rip-off phone charges and do the odd video call. Everything else is marginal. The most recent Extra—the add-ons that were supposed to be part of this new Skype ecosystem–is dated January 2010 and that’s just an update on an old program. One guy I interviewed in 2005 had set up a network of 30,000 experts in 50 countries on a website called Jyve.com that was going to piggyback this new Skype-connected world. He’s nowhere to be found now and Jyve.com is an empty page.

eBay didn’t get it, of course, but that’s only part of the story. About a year ago I wrote a piece calling on Skype to realize that it was at heart the world’s most effective social network tool. I wrote:

If Skype dovetailed with Facebook, twitter and LinkedIn it could position itself at the heart of social media. After all, it’s probably the only application that most Internet users have installed, loaded and [have] active on their computer. Unlike Facebook et al, Skype is there, right in the moment. It’s the ultimate presence app.

Indeed, it’s much more like an instant Rolodex (remember those?) than all the other networking services we use. If I want to contact someone the first place I check is Skype—if they’re online, what’s the point of contacting them any other way?

In other words, Skype offers a granularity that other social networking tools don’t: Not only is it comfortable with one to all (the status update message), it’s also comfortable with the one to several (add people to a chat or call), it’s also great at instantly connecting one on one. You can even reach people offline via it, if they have call forwarding enable, or you have their SMS details stored.

No other social network offers that.

Skype sits on every computer (and most smartphones.) By definition all the people the user is connected to are people he wants to actually communicate with—rather than just ‘friending’ or ‘ ‘connecting to’. It’s an easier way to share stuff—photos, files etc–and it’s now pretty easy to set up groups and stuff (In Afghanistan we used it as a way to share security updates; people could see the information in real time or catch up on messages when they got online. In Singapore I use it to talk to my students via teams and the whole class.)

Unfortunately Skype may have read my piece, or they may not. Either way, they half went down this road by trying to throw in lots of things that people didn’t need—including an annoying Firefox extension that turned every number on a webpage into a phone number, including bank accounts. Now Skype is so big and clunky it crashes on my Android phone and my Windows computer.

But in a perfect world Skype works. It’s simple. For many people it’s a telephone. For others it’s a presence indicator: I’m online, I’m not. My computer is connected to the internet (green button showing) or there’s a problem with the connection (grey downer button showing). For some people it’s become a very useful way to organize teleconferences (though don’t talk to my colleagues on an Indonesia project about this; they spend hours trying to get a connection going.)

Skype wasn’t first but it worked better than others, which is why everyone has a Skype account, and why asking for someone’s Skype ID is almost as natural as telling asking for their email address.

But unfortunately I’m not sanguine about a Microsoft/Skype future. Either they integrate the technology behind it into their other smorgasbord of products, in which case you wonder why they didn’t develop the technology themselves, or they leave it as it is. Either way it’s not good: While analysts have focused on how Skype might fit into Microsoft’s non-PC products like Kinect and Xbox, it’s hard to imagine that Microsoft won’t try to shoehorn Skype users into one of its misbegotten sub-brands, losing non-Windows users along the way.

Skype Messenger anyone? Live Skype? Skype Office? Skype Explorer? I shudder to think what will happen. I may be wrong—I’ve been plenty wrong about Skype before—but my fear is of a Skype that gets as clunky and overloaded as MSN Messenger, as bewildering as the Live family of products, as impossible to separate from other Microsoft products as Microsoft Word, as doomed as Outlook Express and anything from the Live Labs mob.

I do hope I’m wrong because of all the networks I have on my computer and cellphone, Skype is still the one I actually need. Skype: whither or wither?

Why We Work in Starbucks

(this is a copy of my Loose Wire Service column, syndicated to newspapers; hence no links.)

By Jeremy Wagstaff

Why do we work in Starbucks? It’s a question I ask myself every day, because I usually find myself in one at least once. This despite having an excellent home office replete with cappuccino machine, music, ergonomic chair and, most importantly, sofa. But lo, every day I wend my way to a Starbucks, or one of those other chains, and park myself in an uncomfortable chair and too-low table, dodging the students with their bags strewn across space they’ll never use, the dregs of a smoothie enough to make it look as if they’re paying their way, babies screaming blue murder by the sugar dispenser.

Why? Why do I do it?

Well, I think it has to do with noise. And a cycle that goes back 300 years and, importantly, has to do with organ grinders.

So first, the organ grinders.

Next time you look out of your window and you don’t see an organ grinder making his way down the street, you can blame Charles Dickens. And Tennyson, Wilkie Collins and 28 authors, painters, engravers, illustrators, historians, actors, sculptors, musicians, architects and scientists. All of them, in 1863, co-signed a letter that “in their devotion to their pursuits—tending to the piece and comfort of mankind—they are daily interrupted, harassed, worried, wearied, driven nearly mad, by street musicians.” Most gave their home and work address as the same. The letter was the centerpiece of a 120-page bill submitted before the British parliament by one Michael Thomas Bass. The letter, and dozens of others, reflect a single themes: a rearguard action to defend the home as workplace against the slings and arrows of street noise.

This was no idle irritant. The streets of central London had become a sea of itinerant workers, musicians and hustlers. Those who didn’t like to have their ears assailed by the noise could either pay them off or complain. But the latter was not without risk. One of Dickens’ friends confronted two street musicians and was insulted, in the words of a friend, “in the choicest Billingsgate.” Another, Charles Babbage, inventor of the Difference Engine, waged a guerrilla war against street musicians from Manchester Square and was not popular for it: mobs, some numbering more than 100, would pursue him, leave dead cats on his doorstep, break his windows and threaten his life.

The Street Music Act was passed the following year, and decimated the itinerant musician community—among them violin-players and street bands, Irish and Scotch pipers, a German brass-bandsman, a French hurdy-gurdy-player, Italian street entertainers, and percussionists and minstrel singers from India and the United States. Many were gone by the latter years of the century—but so were most of the knowledge workers, who upped sticks to the suburbs or took refuge in offices.

The truth is that knowledge workers, or whatever we choose to call ourselves, have long struggled to control the level of noise in our world.

I’ve waged my own noise battles over the years—dogs in Hong Kong flats, car alarms in Singapore, firecrackers in Indonesia. But at issue is not the pursuit of silence, per se, but to find a place where the noise is conducive to work. And that’s trickier—because we’re not sure what it is.

Which is where the coffee house comes in.

Starbucks likes to portray itself as a “third place”—a term purloined from Ray Oldenburg, an urban sociologist, who mourned the demise of informal public gathering places. The idea is that your local Starbucks fulfills a role beyond just providing  you with coffee, but connects you to others in your community, along with sparkling conversation and wit.

The truth is this doesn’t happen—at least not in any Starbucks I know, a point made by historian Bryant  Simon, who hung around in more than 400 Starbucks trying to strike up conversations with strangers. Despite what Starbucks would like us to believe, with its Annual Report covers of friendly people chatting in their outlets, faux artwork and lame noticeboards, and a short-lived community magazine called Joe, we don’t come to Starbucks to chat. Well, not with strangers.

That dream pretty much died long before Dickens got hot under the collar about the racket-making riff raff . Back in the 1700s there were things called coffee houses, all over the place. They were the place where men met—women were usually banned—to drink coffee, read the paper, discuss politics and basically to get away from things (meaning the house.)  These were vibrant, noisy places and there were lots of them. Samuel Johnson called them ‘penny universities.’

But they began to die out, ironically, when newspapers became cheaper and more plentiful, and were delivered to your home. Then the reason for someone to go to a coffee house declined, and our knowledge workers began two centuries of toiling, either in a cubicle or alone at home.

Starbucks—and other things—have brought us full circle. Starbucks was never what Starbucks would like us to think it is: It is, primarily, a solo-friendly environment. You can go there on your own, order something and sit there on your own and no-one is going to bat an eyelid. Social phobics feel uncomfortable there, but less uncomfortable than pretty much any other eatery. Indeed, the size of tables, the size of the chairs, the layout of the place, is designed to cater to someone alone.

Which is why it has become the perfect workplace. It’s not just the free Wi-Fi, the power outlets, the no-nag policy, although that helps. It’s a complex social and psychological thing. For students, libraries are too quiet, too noisy, too old, too full of friends. You are less likely to fall asleep in a Starbucks. For those who work at home, they feel they might be missing something. Or they like to watch other people. It’s a place for introspection, a refuge from the city, from the kids, from everything: There are people around you, but with no obligation to talk to them. The barista can be as friendly or as taciturn as you want her to be. It’s not a sexy environment, and it’s relatively safe: Leave your belongings while you visit the washroom and they may well still be there when you get back.

For people who work in an office it’s refuge from the boss, the people hanging around your cubicle, the greyness of it all, the phones ringing. In libraries it’s people whispering—loud enough to hear them whispering, but not loud enough to hear what they’re whispering about.

So it’s actually often about noise. It turns out we actually need noise. We just need a certain kind of noise.

JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter in a cafe. Stephen King writes to AC/DC or Guns n Roses. Xerox chief researcher John Seely Brown did his doctoral thesis in a bar.

Researchers in Sweden found that actually a certain level of white noise actually helped kids with Attention Deficit Disorder concentrate better. Apparently it’s something to do with increasing the levels of dopamine activity in the brain.  Canadian researchers found that masking noise—adding white noise to their work environment to reduce the intrusion of things like ringing phones—also helped office workers. Kodak issued a manual a few years ago advising offices to do just this—48-52 decibels is the best level, they reckon. Perhaps Dickens and co could have saved themselves the wrath of the mob if they’d installed a white noise machine or invented the iPod.

It’s also related to the way we work, and communicate, today. It’s tempting to imagine Dickens hunched up in the corner scribbling Nicholas Nickleby. But while we knowledge workers have something in common, our tools are quite different, and what we’re asked to do with them: we’re all touch typists, of a sort, which means we write dozens of words a minute. We answer emails as if we were flicking dust off our coat. We write proposals, reports, requests for proposals  that not long ago would have taken teams a month to write. Laptops are lighter, with better battery life, and connected to a communications network. We are our office. Companies realize they don’t need to shackle people to their desks all day—less than 40% of our time, according to one property consultancy, is actually spent at our office desk.

We operate in a supercharged environment, which makes the coffee shop of today a perfect setting. Visual and audible stimulation, but with none of the distraction of having to be sociable. Oh and the coffee. It’s no coincidence, I suspect that caffeine also increases the production of dopamine in the brain. A double whammy of noise and caffeine.

If you’ll excuse me, I need to head off. You know where you can find me.

Facebook’s ‘Locality of Friendship’

This visualization by Facebook intern Paul Butler illustrates what he calls

the locality of friendship. I was interested in seeing how geography and political borders affected where people lived relative to their friends. I wanted a visualization that would show which cities had a lot of friendships between them.

It’s a magnificent effort and scores marks for beauty:

and for the amazing amount of data it carries within it.

Look at how the world of social media breaks down into clusters:

Europe is hard to subdivide: 

image

But Australia and New Zealand are almost three countries:

image

But of greatest interest to me is my own patch, Southeast Asia:

image

Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore are, perhaps unsurprisingly intimately connected:

image

North vs South

While the links between the southern  half of the region and Thailand and Indochina are by comparison quite weak:

image

Philippines stands alone

But the links between the Philippines and Hong Kong appear as strong as those between the Philippines and the southern half of Southeast Asia:

image

The other point to take into account is how spread out Facebook is in Southeast Asia. Indonesia is about as densely packed as Italy or England.

Facebook is not a phemenon limited to the country’s major cities (and this is true of the Philippines and Malaysia, of course.)

I’ll be updating my Facebook Asia Pacific data later this week.

(Thanks to the Guardian’s Simon Rogers.)

Singapore Details ‘Waves’ of Cyberattacks

Officials and delegates from APEC economies were targeted ahead of last year’s Singapore meeting with malware-laden emails faked so they appeared to have been sent by Singapore government officials on the Organising Committee.

Singapore officials have said the attacks were not the first on the country. Although Singapore regularly highlights threats to national security—including Islamic terrorism—the admission that it has been the victim of cyber attacks is, according to the Straits Times, its most detailed account.

Although it’s hard to read too much into the statements made to judge who may have been behind the attacks, it’s interesting that Singapore is drawing attention to this—not least because there’s bound to be speculation about just this point. The current flood of WikiLeaks cables about this very issue is a coincidence. But the description of the attacks fits a pattern familiar to security experts:

Between September and November 2009 APEC officials, and delegates of several APEC economies were targeted with Trojan-laden emails “with the aim of infiltrating their computers and extracting privileged information.” There were at least seven waves of such attacks, focusing on members of the APEC organising committe and APEC delegates whose email addresses were published on websites or in APEC mailing lists. (APEC, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, is a forum for 21 regional economies set up in 1989. Singapore hosted meetings throughout 2009 culminating in a leaders’ meeting in Singapore from November 14-15.) 

The attacks were first mentioned in a speech by Ho Peng Kee, Senior Minister Of State For Law & Home Affairs, who told a seminar on Sept 28 that “Singapore has its fair share of cyber attacks.” More details were  added in an internal but publicly accessible Ministry of Home Affairs magazine, the Home Team Journal, by Loh Phin Juay, head of the Singapore Infocomm Technology Security Authority and reported in the Straits Times on Saturday, December 4.  (The Straits Times called the perpetrators “cyberterrorists”.)

Loh wrote in the magazine article that “between 2004 and 2005, the Singapore government saw waves of Trojan email attacks which were commonly referred to as the Trojan Riler attacks.” The attacks came in four waves over a span of two years, he said, in the form of more than 900 emails targeting officials in several ministries.  

Loh Phin Juay said that the first two waves in the 2009 attacks used PowerPoint and PDF attachments to emails puportedly warning about possible terrorist attacks on the meeting. A subsequent wave included “legitimate information relevant to the APEC 2009 meetings”—in this case an invitation to an actual APEC symposium.

Some of the malicious emails “contained details of actual APEC events (date, time, venue) not known to the general public.” This suggests to me that either the first wave was successful in gaining access to some sensitive information, or, less likely, that those perpetrating the attack were already privy to it (raising the question why they didn’t use that information in the first wave.) Both officials said no significant disruption was caused by the APEC attack.

Singapore last year set up a special body, the Singapore Infocomm Technology Security Authority (SITSA), “to safeguard Singapore against infocomm technology (IT) security threats. SITSA will be the national specialist authority overseeing operational IT security. SITSA’s mission is to secure Singapore’s IT environment, especially vis-à-vis external threats to national security such as cyber-terrorism and cyber-espionage.”

Neither official speculates about the origin of the attacks. In his speech Ho Peng Kee referred separately to Operation Aurora, a cyber attack from mid 2009 to December 2009 on dozens of Western companies including Google, which alleged the attacks began in China. Loh Phin Juay referred in his article to GhostNet, a cyber espionage network which had its command and control network based in China and which penetrated government and embassy computers in a number of countries, including some in Southeast Asia. (Singapore was not mentioned in reports of the compromised computers.)

But he writes that “to date, the perpetrators of GhostNet remain unknown,” and neither man links the Singapore attacks to either event. The Trojan Riler was, according to Symantec, first discovered on September 8, 2004; It has been associated with corporate espionage but also the GhostNet attacks.

Facebook in Asia: Seeds of Decline?

Some thoughts after trawling through data I’m collecting on Facebook membership in selected Asia Pacific countries

Membership of Facebook in developed Asia Pacific territories declined for the first time in a year in September, suggesting, possibly, that interest in the social networking site in the region has peaked. The figures may also reveal insights on whether, in developing countries, a social networking site can break out of their middle class enclaves.

Facebook populations in Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Hong Kong all fell during the month, while those in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines all either grew only marginally or shrank somewhat. Hong Kong dropped by the largest margin—5.7%—while Thailand, alone among the countries under study, grew by more or less the same amount.

India and China, though included in the study, offer a more confusing picture. China’s data may be unreliable: after showing slow but steady growth until April, membership dropped precipitously before rising by nearly 140% in the past month. The reasons for these spikes and dips are unclear, but may have something to do with China’s limits on access to the service. In any case, the proportion of China’s real population remains negligible.

India’s too is negligible, although it did rise above 1% in July and and has been growing by between 400,000 and 1.7 million people per month. In most other countries that would be noteworthy.

But while the data overall remain questionable—these figures are from Facebook’s own statistics, but are not transparent, and are based on where members say they are from or in—there are some identifiable trends:

  • Australia and New Zealand seem to have not only hit a limit in terms of percentage of their overall population who are on Facebook (45% and 41% respectively), but may actually have begun to decline. After recording impressive growth up until May, membership plateaued for a month or two before falling in September. Google Trends graphs measuring traffic to facebook.com in these countries seem to confirm this. (Australia; New Zealand)
  • Hong Kong and Singapore seem to be in a similar boat. While more than half of Hong Kong was on Facebook in July, and nearly 49% of Singapore was on Facebook in August, both populations shrank in September. Only five months ago both territories were recording double digit growth.
  • Thailand is still growing, as is the Philippines. But both are from low bases: Less than 3% of Thailand began the year on Facebook, although that has now grown to 8%. The Philippines has risen from about 10% of the population to about 18% in the same period, but growth in both has dropped recently from earlier rates of up to 25% per month.
  • Indonesia is an interesting case. Its membership, too, was surging in the first half of the year—twice growing by a quarter in the space of a month—but has slowed considerably in the second half. Indeed, its population seems to have plateaued at about 11% of the overall population. That pretty much covers the country’s middle class, according to my calculations. (I wouldn’t want to labor the point, but based on the latest ADB figures, Indonesia is remarkable in the way that Facebook has extended beyond what would usually be considered the middle class limits of an Internet-based service. Those considered to be middle class or above by the ADB is about 11.6% of the population, which is exactly where Facebook’s Indonesia population currently stands. The Philippines—at 18.25%, about 5 percentage points behind the ADB’s calculation of the country’s middle class—has a little way to go, while Malaysia’s Facebook population has space to double in size. Of course, this has a lot to do with the growth of the mobile Internet, which is another topic in itself. )

Previous Facebook data posts:

Facebook in Asia: A Limit to Growth? – loose wire blog

Facebooks Asian Growth: Not Everywhere is North – loose wire blog