Feb 222015
how are we using data in our business

“To my knowledge we have had no data breaches,” stated Tim Morris at the Tech Leaders conference in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney on Sunday.

Morris, the Australian Federal Police force’s Assistant Commissioner for High Tech Crime Operations, was explaining the controversial data retention bill currently before the nation’s Parliament which will require telecommunications companies to keep customers’  connection details – considered to be ‘metadata’ – for two years.

The bill is fiercely opposed by Australia’s tech community, including this writer, as it’s an expensive   and unnecessary invasion of privacy that will do little to protect the community but expose ordinary citizens to a wide range of risks.

One of those risks is that of the data stores being hacked, a threat that Morris downplayed with some qualifications.

As we’re seeing in the Snowden revelations, there are few organisations that are secure against determined criminals and the Australian Federal Police are no exception.

For all organisations, not just government agencies, the question about data should be ‘do we need this?’

In a time of ‘Big Data’ where it’s possible to collect and store massive amounts of information, it’s tempting to become a data hoarder which exposes managers to various risks, not the least that of it being stolen my hackers. It may well be that reducing those risks simply means collecting less data.

Certainly in Australia, the data retention act will only create more headaches and risks while doing little to help public safety agencies to do their job. Just because you can collect data doesn’t mean you should.

Feb 142015

In 1977 NASA’s Voyager mission launched from Cape Canaveral to explore the outer solar system, included on the vessel in case it encountered other civilisations were a plaque and a golden record describing life on Earth.

The record was, is, “a 12-inch gold-plated copper disk containing sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth.” It containing images,  a variety of natural sounds, musical selections from different cultures and spoken greetings in fifty-five languages.

Most American households in 1977 could have listened to the sounds on Voyager’s golden disk but were the spaceship to return today it would be difficult to find the technology to read the record.

This is the concern of Google Fellow and internet pioneer Vint Cerf who told the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting in San Jose this week we are “facing a forgotten century” as today’s technologies are superseded rendering documents unreadable.

A good example of ‘bit rot’ is the floppy disk – the icon used by most programs to illustrate saving files is long redundant and few organisations, let alone households, have the ability to read a floppy disk.

For corporations the problem of dealing with data stored on tape is an even greater problem as proprietary hardware and software from long vanished corporations becomes harder to find or engineer.

As the Internet of Things rolls out and data becomes more critical to business operations, the need for compatible and readable formats will become even more important for companies and historical information may well become a valuable asset.

With libraries, museums and government archives having digitised historic information, this issue of accessing data in superseded formats becomes even more pressing.

It may be that important documents need to be kept on paper – although there’s still the problem of paper deteriorating  – to make sure the 21st Century doesn’t become the digital dark ages and our golden records remain unread.

Dec 172014
how are we using data in our business

Automation is the greatest change we’re going to see in business over the next decade as companies increasingly rely upon computers to make day to day decisions.

Giving control to algorithms however comes with a set of risks which managers and business owners have to prepare for.

Earlier this week the risks in relying on algorithms were shown when car service Uber’s management was slow to react to a situation where its formulas risked a PR disaster.

Uber’s misstep in Sydney shows the weaknesses in the automated business model as its algorithm detected people clamouring for rides out of the city and applied ‘surge pricing’.

Surge pricing is applied when Uber’s system sees high demand – typically around events like New Year’s Eve – although the company has previously been criticised for alleged profiteering during emergencies like Hurricane Sandy in New York.

In the light of previous criticism, it’s surprising that Uber stumbled in Sydney during the hostage crisis. Shortly after criticism of the surge pricing arose on the internet, the company’s Sydney social media manager sent out a standard defence of surge pricing.

That message was consistent with both Uber’s business model and how the algorithm that determines the company’s fares works; however it was a potential disaster for the business’ already battered reputation.

An hour later the company’s management had realised their mistake and announced that rides out of Sydney’s Central Business District would be free.

User’s mistake is a classic example of the dangers of relying solely on an algorithm to determine business decisions; while things will work fine during the normal course of business, there will always be edge cases that create perverse results.

While machines are efficient; they lack context, judgement and compassion which exposes those who rely solely upon them to unforeseen risks.

As the Internet of Things rolls out, systems will be deployed where responses will be based upon the rules of predetermined formulas.

Businesses with overly strict rules and no provision for management intervention in extreme circumstances will find themselves, like Uber, at the mercy of their machines. Staking everything on those machines could turn out to be the riskiest strategy of all.

Dec 162014

Earlier this year Decoding The New Economy interviewed SurveyMonkey’s  CEO Dave Goldberg on his vision for the business and how the company’s services are helping people understand the context of the data pouring into their organisations.

Yesterday SurveyMonkey announced it had raised 250 million dollars through an equity round that values the business at $1.3 billion, an amount only a little more than what the company has raised since being founded in 1999.

The additional funds are earmarked for privately held SurveyMonkey to acquire more companies and “provide meaningful liquidity to our employees and investors” with participants in the new funding round including CEO Goldberg and Google Ventures increasing their existing stakes.

In his interview with Decoding The New Economy last February, Goldberg described how he sees mobile technologies changing both SurveyMonkey and business in general along with the challenge for companies in understanding the data pouring into business.

It’s not hard to image many of the acquisitions SurveyMonkey makes with its latest fundraising will be in the mobile and analytics sectors.

Dec 022014

Hackers are infiltrating public companies to gain an edge on Wall Street warns a story on financial website Finextra.

This is not news, companies’ networks have been the target of insider traders since the early days of corporate computing. What is different today though are the nature of the risks as Chinese and even North Korean hackers are probing networks containing vast amounts of information to find weaknesses and confidential information.

For insider traders, it may be the internet of things turns out to be a boon. By hijacking delivery or supply data, traders may have an advantage over the market.

Things could get very nasty if those hackers subtly alter the data, say over reporting production yields, so a company gives the wrong income guidance based on faulty information.

Security is one of the big issues facing the internet of things sector and the consequences of poorly protected sensors or systems could be immense when governments, businesses and communities come to rely on a stream of data they can trust.

The bad guys are only just starting to explore the possibilities of the connected world.

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.