Nov 202014

At this week’s Australian Gartner Symposium ethics was one of the key issues flagged for CIOs and IT workers; as technology becomes more pervasive and instrusive, managers are going to have to deal with a myriad of questions about what is the moral course of action.

So far the news isn’t good for the tech industry with many businesses failing to deal with the masses of data they are accumulating on users, suppliers and competitors.

A failure of transparency

One case in point is that of online ride service, Uber. One of Uber’s supposed strengths is its accountability and transparancy; the service can track passengers and drivers through their journey which should, in theory, make the trip safer for everybody.

In reality the tracking doesn’t do a great job of protecting riders and drivers, mainly because Uber has Silicon Valley’s Soviet attitude to customer service. That tracking also creates an ethical issue for the company’s management and one that isn’t being dealt with well.

Compounding Uber’s ethical problem is the attitude of its managers, when a Senior Vice President suggests smearing a journalist who writes critical stories then its clear the company has a problem and the question for users has to be ‘can we trust these people with our personal data?’

With Uber we may be seeing the first company where data management and misuse results in senior management, and possibly the founder, falling on their sword.

Journalists’ ethics

Another aspect of the latest Uber story is the question of journalistic ethics; indeed the apologists for Uber counter that because some journalists are corrupt that justifies underhand tactics from companies subject to critical articles.

That argument is deeply flawed with little merit and tells us more about the people making it than any journalist’s ethical compass, however there is a discussion to be had about the behaviour of many reporters.

As someone who regularly receives corporate largess — I attended the Gartner Symposium as a guest of BlackBerry and will be going to an Acer event tomorrow night — this is something I regularly grapple with; my answer (or rationalisation) is that I disclose that largess and let the reader make up their own mind.

However one thing is clear at these events; everything is on the record unless explicitly stated by the other party. This makes Michael Wolff’s criticism of Ben Smith’s original Uber story in Buzz Feed pretty hollow and gives us many pointers on Wolff’s own moral compass as he invites other writers to ‘privileged’ dinners where the default attitude is that everything is off the record.

Playing an insider game

Ultimately we’re seeing an insider game being played, where journalists like Wolff put their own egos above their job of telling their audience what is happening; Jay Rosen highlighted this problem with political coverage but in many respects it’s worse in tech, business and startup journalism.

It’s not surprising when a game is being played by insiders that they take offense at outsiders criticizing them.

Once the customers become outsiders though, the game is drawing to an end. That’s the fate Uber, and much of the tech industry, desperately want to avoid.

Uber in particular has many powerful enemies around the world and clumsy management mis-steps only play into the hands of those who see the company as a threat to their cosy cartels. It would be a shame if Uber’s disruption of the many dysfunctional taxi markets was derailed due to the company’s paranoia and arrogance.

Eventually ethics matter. It’s something that both the insular tech industry and those who write on it should remind themselves.

Nov 092014
Smart rubbish bins in Barcelona

Last year Alicia Asin of Spanish sensor vendor Libelium spoke to this site about her vision of the internet of things improving transparency in society and government.

A good example of this democratisation of data was at the New South Wales Pearcey Awards last week where the state’s winners of the Young ICT Explorers competition were profiled.

Coming in equal first were a group of students from Neutral Bay’s state primary school with their Bin I.T project that monitors garbage levels in rubbish bins.

The kids built their project on an Arduino microcontroller that connects to a Google spreadsheet which displays the status of the bin in the school’s classrooms. For $80 they’ve created a small version of what the City of Barcelona is spending millions of Euro on.

With the accessibility of cheap sensors and cloud computing its possible for students, community groups and activists to take the monitoring of their environment into their own hands; no longer do people have to rely on government agencies or private companies to release information when they can collect it themselves.

Probably the best example of activists taking action themselves is the Safecast project which was born out of community suspicion of official radiation data following the Fukushima.

We can expect to see more communities following the Safecast model as concerns about the effects of mining, industrial and fracking operations on neighbourhoods grow.

The Bin I.T project and the kids of Neutral Bay Public School could be showing us where communities will be taking data into their own hands in the near future.

Oct 212014

Beacon technologies are one of the hottest items in the Internet of Things with retailers, sports stadiums and hotels looking at how they  can use these devices to improve their operations and customer experiences.

At Dreamforce 2014 Proximity Insight’s Steve Orell spoke on the event’s wearable panel about how their service plugs into beacon technology and customer service.

Proximity Insight was born out of the 2013 Dreamforce Hackathon where Orell and his team were finalists. From that, the company set up operations in New York with a focus on customer relationship management in the retail industry.

Retail isn’t the only the field that Orell sees for Proximity Insight with the hotel and casino industries as being other targets.

“With the hotel, why check-in? Why not walk in and let your smartphone do it for you?” Orell asks.

“It’s all about making live so much more seamless and slick,” Orell adds. “There’s opportunities in every sector.”

For businesses looking at rolling out beacon technologies the key is to be adding value to enhance the customer experience, Orell believes.

“You have to be delivering something to the customer beyond tracking them, it’s about making the whole retail or hospitality experience better. It has to benefit the customer.”

With beacon technologies now becoming common and the supporting hardware being built into all smartphones, we can expect to see more applications coming onto the market. It’s worth considering how your business can use them to enhance the customer experience.

Paul travelled to Dreamforce 2014 as a guest of Salesforce

Oct 142014

Last week we looked at the way we organise information is changing in the face of exploding data volumes.

One of the consequences of the data explosion is that structured databases are beginning to struggle as information sources and business needs are becoming more diverse.

Yesterday, cloud Customer Relationship Management company Salesforce announced their Wave analytics product which the company says “with its schema-free architecture, data no longer has to be pre-sorted or organized in some narrowly defined manner before it can be analyzed.”

The end of the database era

Salesforce’s move is interesting for a company whose success has been based upon structured databases to run its CRM and other services.

What the company’s move could be interpreted that the age of the database is over; that organising data is a fool’s errand as it becomes harder to sort and categorise the information pouring into businesses.

This was the theme at the previous week’s Splunk conference in Las Vegas where the company’s CTO, Todd Papaioannou, told Decoding The New Economy how the world is moving away from structured databases.

“We’re going through a sea change in the analytics space,” Papaioannou said. “What characterised the last thirty years was what I call the ‘schema write’ era; big databases that have a schema where you have to load the data into that schema then transform before you can ask questions of it.”

Breaking the structure

The key with programs like Salesforce and other database driven products like SAP and Oracle is that both the data structures — the schema — and the questions are largely pre-configured. With the unstructured model it’s Google-like queries on the stored data that matters.

For companies like Salesforce this means a fundamental change to their underlying product and possibly their business models as well.

It may well be that Salesforce, a company that defined itself by the ‘No Software’ slogan is now being challenged by the No Database era.

Paul travelled to San Francisco and Las Vegas as a guest of Salesforce and Splunk respectively

Oct 122014

A  cute little story appeared on the BBC website today about the Teatreneu club, a comedy venue in Barcelona using facial recognition technology to charge for laughs.

In a related story, the Wall Street Journal reports on how marketers are scanning online pictures to identify the people engaging with their brands and the context they’re being used.

With the advances in recognition technology and deeper, faster analytics it’s now becoming feasible that anything you do that’s posted online or being monitored by things like CCTV is now quite possibly recognise you, the products your using and the place you’re using them in.

Throw all of the data gathered by these technologies into the stew of information that marketers, companies and governments are already collecting and there a myriad of  good and bad applications which could be used.

What both stories show is that technology is moving fast, certainly faster than regulatory agencies and the bulk of the public realise. This is going to present challenges in the near future, not least with privacy issues.

For the Teatreneu club, the experiment should be interesting given rich people tend to laugh less; they may find the folk who laugh the most are the people least able to pay 3o Euro cents a giggle.

Oct 082014
How can business survive rough seas

Last week Yahoo! closed down their directory pages ending one of the defining services of the 1990s internet and showing how the internet has changed since the first dot com boom.

The Yahoo! Directory was victim of a fundamental change in how we manage data as Google showed it wasn’t necessary to tag and label every piece of information before it could be used.

Yahoo!’s Directory was a classic case of applying old methods to new technologies – in this case carrying out a librarian’s function of cataloguing and categorising every web page.

One problem with that way of saving information is you need to know part of the answer before you can start searching; you need to have some idea of what category your query comes under or the name of the business or person you’re looking for.

That pan was exploited by the Yellow Pages where licensees around the world harvested a healthy cash flow from businesses forced to list under a dozen different categories to make sure prospective customers found them.

With the arrival of Google that way of structuring information came to an end as Sergey Brin and Larry Page’s smart algorithm showed it wasn’t necessary to pigeonhole information into highly structured databases.

Unstructured data

Rather than being structured, data is now becoming ‘unstructured’ and instead of employing an army of clerks to categorise information it’s now the job of computers to analyse that raw information and pick out what we need for our businesses and lives.

As information pours into companies from increasingly diverse sources, a flood that’s becoming so great it’s being referred to as the ‘data lake’, it’s become clear the battle to structure data is lost.

At the Splunk Conference in Las Vegas this week, the term ‘data lake’ is being used a lot as the company explains its technology for analysing business information.

Splunk, along with services like IBM’s Watson and Tableau Software, is one the companies capitalising on businesses’ need to manage unstructured data by giving customers the tools to analyse their information without having first to shoehorn it into a database.

“Thanks to Google we got to look at data a different way,” says Splunk’s CEO and Chairman Godfrey Sullivan. “You don’t have to know the question before you start the search.”

Diving into the data lake

It’s always dangerous applying simple labels to computing technologies but some terms, like ‘Cloud Computing’, don’t do a bad job of describing the principles involved and so it is with the ‘data lake’.

Rather than a nice, orderly world where everything can be pigeonholed, we know have a fluid environment where it wouldn’t be possible to label everything even if we wanted to. A lake is a good description of the mass of data pouring into our lives.

The web was an early example of having to manage that data lake and Google showed how it could be done. Now it’s the turn of other companies to apply the principles to business.

Google fatally damaged both Yahoo! and the Yellow Pages, other companies that are stuck in the age of structured data are going to find the future equally dismal. Don’t drown in that data lake.

Paul travelled to Las Vegas as a guest of Splunk

Oct 042014
google self driving car

One of the promises of big data and the internet of things is that local governments will be able to gather information about the state of their infrastructure.

A good working example of this is Google’s Waze, the Israeli traffic monitoring startup bought by the search engine giant two years ago.

Waze gathers information about traffic delays and transit times from users then aggregates them to give a picture of commuting times. It has always been a good example of how collaborative data can work.

This week Google announced the service will share its information with a handful of transit agencies and councils to improve their knowledge of the traffic choke points in their cities.

In return the agencies will give their transit information to Waze.

Waze’s story is a good example of how sensors and people, in this case smartphones and their users, are going to gather information on infrastructure and cities. The key is going to be in making sure that data isn’t locked into proprietory databases.