May 192017
 

The passing of Roger Ailes, former NIxon advisor and founder of Fox News, is an opportunity to reflect on how the media has evolved over the past forty years.

Ailes’ work shows how click bait, fake news and filter bubbles are not products of the world wide web but pre-date it by at least twenty years with the rise of tabloid television and the modern version of yellow journalism designed to scare people.

While the web and social media proved wonderful ways to spread such messages, it was the arrival of programs  like A Current Affair twenty years earlier in the United States and reporters like Steve Dunleavy who changed popular journalism and taught us to fear our neighbours.

The results of that have been profound in everything from kids not walking to school any more to the magnificently wasteful prison systems all of the English speaking countries have built in response to hysteria over crime rates.

Ailes and his colleagues found a successful media model that attracted viewers and advertisers which set the pattern for today’s febrile environment of fake news and filter bubbles that have ushered in the most unstable and reactionary political climate since the early 1930s.

Where we go next remains to be seen, it’s a shame Ailes won’t be around to pay the price of his works.

May 082017
 

“It’s like we lived through five minutes of innovation sunshine,” says Federal shadow treasurer Chris Bowen about the Australian government’s innovation policy.

Bowen was appearing at the Future of Innovation panel at Sydney’s Stone and Chalk fintech hub with his colleague Ed Husic where laid out the Labor Party’s platform for the tech industry and the changing workforce.

Both Husic and Bowen represent Western Sydney electorates which, along with outer suburban Melbourne, are key election battlegrounds and the districts dealing with most of Australia’s surging population growth.

Uneven spoils

As Bowen indicated in his speech, those regions haven’t shared in the country’s economic growth over the past ten years.

Some parts of the Australian economy are doing well.  Other parts are doing it tough.

Half of all the jobs created in Australia in the last decade have been created right where we are: in a two kilometre radius of the Sydney and Melbourne CBDs.

The economy feels good from this vantage point.

 

Not understanding the mismatch between different parts of the economy was one of the failures of the government’s 2015 Innovation Statement. The multi million dollar advertising campaign was full of fine buzzwords but none of the rhetoric resonated with the broader electorate, something not helped by the Prime Minister retreating from his policies at the first opportunity.

Spreading the gains

Bowen and Husic made a good case for their policies being focused on the wider population as a changing workforce is going to affect all parts of the economy.

So I spend a lot of time travelling to and talking to people in regional economies.  It doesn’t feel as good there.

Regional central and North Queensland. Tasmania. South Australia.

Here, unemployment and youth unemployment are high and show no signs of budging.

So Bowen’s commitment for his party to work on innovation, education and industry policies that help suburban and regional Australia – not just the leafy bits of upper middle class Sydney and Melbourne – is welcome and essential for the nation.

Refreshingly Bowen also acknowledged many of the jobs that currently exist in suburban and regional Australia are very likely to be automated and that education, reskilling and investment are all critical factors in dealing with employment shifts.

A familiar tale

However we have heard this before, the Rudd Labor government came in with high hopes when it was elected in 2007 which it quickly dispelled and then compounded its errors with cancelling the COMET commercialisation program and making a mess of employee option schemes.

Given this history of poorly conceived thought bubbles posing as policy, this writer asked (or rather begged) Bowen to consult with industry and the community before announcing major policy changes – something both parties have become notorious for.

In answer to the comment about consulting with the electorate before substantive policy changes, Bowen suggested a Shorten ALP government will be requiring senior public servants to be more engaged with industry.

Suggesting that senior public servants should engage with the community and industry is a good idea. That the idea is seen as revolutionary illustrates the problem found by former Digital Transformation Office boss Paul Shetler when he arrived in Australia with the country’s top bureaucrats being isolated and aloof from the citizens they deign to rule. This isolation is in itself a challenge facing Australian governments.

Memories of earlier oppositions

 

The Sydney tech community’s lauding Husic and Bowen bought back some memories. Fifteen years ago Australian technologists  were doing the same thing with another Labor shadow spokesperson, Kate Lundy. We ended up with factional warriors Stephen Conroy and Kim Carr when Labor finally won. While both were no doubt wonderful at delivering the numbers to party faction warlords their understanding of the changing economy was marginal at best.

While the Rudd government at least paid lip service to the Twenty-First Century, unlike the Howard government which was firmly focused on taking Australia back to the 1950s – with some degree of success it should be said, the Labor Party did little apart from getting the National Broadband Network underway.

In opposition, the Liberal Party too made similar noises however communications spokesperson Paul Fletcher, like Lundy, has been marginalised since winning power and Paul Keating’s description of Malcolm Turnbull as ‘Fizza’ has never seemed more apt since Malcolm became Prime Minister.

For Australians hoping some of the Lucky Country’s luck would be applied to the nation’s tech sector, government policies from both parties have been a succession of broken dreams.

Husic and Bowen are promising this time it will be different. Many of us hope it will be, it may be the last chance for Australia to have a fair economy fit for the 21st Century.

May 072017
 

Last week saw the inaugural Sydney Techfugees Meetup at the Australian offices of TripAdvisor, an initiative that not just assists new arrivals to the country but shows the importance of keeping a society diverse.

Techfugees is a UK founded initiative harnessing the international tech community’s skills to assist with the global refugee crisis, the Australian offshoot was set up in 2015 with the aim of helping refugees settle into the Australian community.

Moving countries is stressful for most people and migrants often face problems accessing services and capital. For refugees who’ve been traumatised by dislocation and war, the problems are even greater.

Having had four hackathons, the Sydney meetup was an opportunity for the organisers to showcase their work and five new projects that addressed problems facing immigrant communities.

A refugee’s story

Kicking off the event was a brief presentation from Mahir Momand, former refugee from Afghanistan and now the Australian CEO of Thrive, a microfinance business for refugee businesses.

Momand’s story tells us much about the refugee story, born in Afghanistan his family fled to Pakistan after the 1979 Soviet invasion. Twice he returning to his home country before having to flee each time after his charitable work incurred the wrath of the Taliban.

For migrants and refugee families, microfinancing an important idea, with few assets or business links in their new country is hard for them to access capital so this is an important way to stimulate employment among groups that tend to be entrepreneurial. This is one area where an concept designed for developing communities applies just as well to advanced economies.

Presenting the apps

The groups that presented at the meet up were diverse, One Step App offers walking tours which aims to build bridges between the immigrant and established communities while Cinema of the Oppressed looks at using video and other creative tools to help alleviate depression and isolation among new arrivals.

On a more functional level, Water Democracy is developing a cheap and accessible device to purify water in disadvantaged communities while mAdapt uses mobile technology to increase refugee access to essential reproductive health services.

Upload Once, the first project to present, is intended to keep a new arrival’s documentation in one place to make it easier for them to maintain and access important records which is essential for dealing with the bureaucracy when arriving in a new country.

Bringing in diverse skills

All of the Techfugees projects showed the diverse range of needs and talents of refugees and new immigrants.

In these troubled, and scared, times it shouldn’t be forgotten how refugees and immigrants have been the strengths of most the successful Twentieth Century economies – most notably the United States and Australia, countries which are erecting greater barriers at the same time they are congratulating themselves for their successful immigrant societies.

With technology changing the workforce, harnessing the talents and work ethic of displaced people could well be one of the strengths for this century as well. Techfugees is a small taste of what could be done.

Jan 112017
 

Last year the Australian Federal government had a smart idea. To fix its chronic budget deficit, it would use data matching to claw back an estimated three billion dollars in social security overspending.

Unfortunately for tens of thousands of Australians the reality has turned out to very different with the system mistakenly flagging thousands of former claimants as being debtors.

How the Australian government messed up its welfare debt recovery is a cautionary tale of misusing data.

Data mis-match

At its core, the problem is due to the bureaucrats mismatching information.

Australia’s social security system requires unemployment or sickness benefit claimants file a fortnightly income statement with Centrelink, the agency that administers the system, and their payments are adjusted accordingly.

Most of those on benefits only spend a short time on them. According to the Department of Social Services, two thirds of recipients are off welfare within twelve months of starting.

Flawed numbers

Despite knowing this, the bureaucrats decided to take annual tax returns, average the individual’s income across the year and match the result against the fortnightly payment.

That obviously flawed and dishonest method has meant hundreds of former welfare recipients have been falsely accused of receiving overpayments.

Compounding the problem, the system frequently mis-identifies income because it fails to recognise employers may use different legal names, leading to people having their wages double counted and being accused of not reporting work.

Shock and awe

Under pressure from their political masters, the aggressive tactics of Centrelink and its debt collectors have left many of those accused shocked and distressed.

I can barely breathe when I think about this. My time period to pay is up tomorrow. I asked them for proof before I pay and I have heard horror stories of debt collection agencies, people being asked to pay so much, people being told there will be a black mark on their credit. I am so terrified. It’s so stupid for me to be terrified but I can’t help it. I am a student, I can’t afford anything!

Reading the minister’s response to criticisms, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that intimidation was a key objective.

The numbers of people involved are staggering. The department of Social Services reported 732,100 Australians received the Newstart unemployment allowance in 2015-16. Should 66% of those have moved off the benefit during the tax year then up to 488,000 people will receive ‘please explain’ notices.

Nearly half a million people being falsely accused of welfare fraud is bad enough, but that is only last year’s figures – due to a  law change by the previous Labor government, there is no limit to how far back Centrelink can go to recover alleged debts.

The System is working

Claiming the Centrelink debacle is a failure of Big Data and IT systems is wrong – the system is working as designed. The false positives are the result of a deliberate decision by agency bosses and their ministers to feed flawed data into the system.

How this will work out for the Australian government as tens of thousands more people receive unreasonable demands remains to be seen. Recent comments from the minister indicate they are hoping their ‘tough on welfare cheats’ line will resonate with the electorate.

Regardless of how well  it turns out for the Australian government, the misuse of data by its agencies is a worrying example of how governments can use the information they collect to harass citizens for short term political advantage.

Beyond welfare

While many Australians can dismiss the travails of Centrelink ‘clients’ as not concerning them, the same data matching techniques have long been used by other agencies – not least the Australian Taxation Office.

With the Federal Treasurer threatening a campaign against corporate tax dodging and the failure of the welfare crackdown to deliver the promised funds, it’s not hard to see small and medium businesses being caught in a similar campaign using inappropriate data.

More importantly, the Australian Public Service’s senior management’s incompetence, lack of ethics and proven inability to manage data systems is something that should deeply concern the nation’s taxpayers.

In a connected age, where masses of information is being collected on all of us, this is something every citizen should be objecting to.

Sep 272016
 
Kennedy Nixon Presidential Debate 1960

As the 2016 US Presidential race enters its final stages, it’s interesting to see how data is being used by American political candidates and what this means for business.

During last week’s Oracle Open World in San Francisco a panel hosted by the company’s Political Action Committee featured Stephanie Cutter, who worked on Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns, and Mike Murphy, a Republican operative whose most recently worked on Jeb Bush’s primary effort against Donald Trump.

While the discussion mainly focused on the politics – “Crazy times seem to require crazy candidates” says Murphy – it was the technology aspect of modern elections that was notable.

Setting the data standard

The Obama campaign of 2008 set the standard for how modern political campaigns used social media and information, “we revolutionized how data analytics helps predict how people will vote and how they will persuade voters to turn out.” Cutter said.

“We put a big investment into it and Republicans have caught up,” she continued. “The key though was we relied on our own data and nothing that was out in the public domain. We didn’t rely on one piece of data, we had multiple sources. We had an analytics program where we were making 9,000 calls a night where we were predicting the votes.”

Murphy agreed with the political campaigns using data, “the kind of polling you see in the media has kind of vanished in campaigns where they have money to spend on research.” He said, “we don’t do telephone polling any more because we have so much data we can collect.”

Capturing everything

“We capture everything. We have about four hundred data points on the American voter and we’ll have five hundred in the next two years. We’ll be able to build massive data models without phone polling,” Murphy pointed out. “We’re waiting for the tech folk to get ahead on AI so we can predict what voters are going to do in two weeks.”

Despite the amount data collected by US political parties, the real key to success is the candidate’s organisation and management. Cutter made a strong point about the strength of Obama’s campaign team in both the 2008 and 2012 campaigns.

How the US political parties use data points to how businesses will be managing data in the future. Increasingly using information well is going to be the measure of successful organisations in both politics and industry.

Sep 082016
 

Leading the City of Sydney’s Lord Mayoral race is incumbent Clover Moore. Long a thorn in side of the state’s political and media establishments, the independent Moore has safely held the city’s Lord Mayorship since beating the seemingly unbeatable Labor candidate in 2004.

Since being elected, Moore has been focused on Sydney being a ‘living and sustainable city’ with the Sydney 2030 plan being the focus of her administration. This election’s platform builds on that scheme.

While acknowledged in the 2030 strategy paper, the tech sector really didn’t feature in that document – something that reflects how late all levels of Australian government have been in recognising the industry’s role in economic development.

However in recent years the council has been developing its programs, including the Startup Action Plan and on the Clover Moore team for this year’s election Jess Scully, director of  the annual Vivid Ideas festival and organiser of TEDxSydney, is the spokesperson for the campaign’s tech and cultural platforms.

“The crucial things are access to talent and space,” Scully told me when I interviewed her a few weeks ago. “There are reasons why people are attracted and drawn into the gravity of precincts in the heart of the city.”

Scully cites the city’s working with property developers to allocate space for startup hubs in new developments, the council’s support for various events and the support for infrastructure projects, not least the contentious bikepaths, to improve the city’s liveability.

Like the rest of the candidates’ teams, Jess provided the following answers to our questions.

What are your policies relating to encouraging tech startups?

“Clover has been very proactive in supporting the start-up sector and encouraging co-location, which we know amplifies the benefits of having a lot of bright minds working together. After consulting with the sector, the City adopted a Tech Start-Up Action Plan in March, which has the aim of building a robust start-up ecosystem by offering access to affordable space, promoting dense agglomeration and increasing access to funding and markets.

“Of course, it’s easy to say these things – but under Clover’s direction, the City of Sydney is already taking action – one major step has already been taken. We know Sydney can be an expensive place for start-ups to access affordable space, but in the future we want the knowledge economy well represented in the heart of our CBD. The City has negotiated a Voluntary Planning Agreement with Lend Lease to secure 3900 square metres on three floors in a prime spot on George Street at Circular Quay for tech start-ups.

“This new development will put tomorrow’s tech and start-up leaders right in the centre of the action, closer to potential clients and partners in the corporate world. This new CBD tech hub will provide affordable space for businesses at different stages of development, co-working spaces and community space.”

What do you see as Sydney’s strengths in this sector?

“Sydney benefits from its own gravity – we’re home to over two thirds of Australia’s start-up community – we’re the natural home for businesses that want to scale up and go global from the outset. We’re a global city that’s attractive for talent, and we’re the base for the creative industries, finance and services sectors, so being located here allows you connect with potential collaborators, clients and investors. Other regions have to offer more incentives to overcome the natural advantages that Sydney offers start-ups.”

What are we not doing well at the moment?

“We’re still young: Sydney has a relatively new tech start-up ecosystem and we’re struggling with two challenges: skill shortages in ICT, and in attracting capital to scale-up.”

What are we doing well?

“I think our start-up ecosystem in Sydney is one of the most supportive and collaborative in the world: I’m so impressed by the generosity and knowledge sharing that goes on in places like Fishburners, Stone & Chalk, Blue Chilli.

“It’s also fantastic to see how engaged our start-up success stories – the founders behind Atlassian, Spreets, Freelancer, and the incredible team at Blackbird – and how committed they are to leading the next generation, being present and offering support, to raising the tide and growing the sector here. I have been fortunate to work with Blackbird Ventures for the last two years on The Sunrise, a conference they fund and drive to get students, aspiring entrepreneurs and emerging founders to connect with new thinking and with each other. Their work and their investment fund are going to be transformative.

“From my observations around the world, this generosity and level of support is just remarkable – they’re leading the way in helping Sydney deliver on our potential to be a global start-up and tech hub.”

How do you see the City’s relations with state and Federal government affecting current efforts?

“The City has differences with other levels of government on some issues but tech start-ups is not one of them – we have a good relationship with other levels of government on tech start-ups.  In particular, we are working closely with the NSW Government on innovation and new initiatives.”

Currently Victoria and Queensland are doing better at attracting businesses. Should we do anything to counter that and, if so, what?

“The City of Sydney is the nation’s tech start-up hub with two thirds of Australian start-ups. The City of Sydney’s economy also grew at 4.5 per cent per annum in the last term – outstripping the national growth rate. Other states use incentives to try and attract businesses to counteract the fundamental strengths of Sydney as the nation’s global city. Our ecosystem is 6 times larger than Brisbane and 55% bigger than Melbourne.

“Working on the fundamentals that underpin the strength of a tech start-up ecosystem is the key for a successful ecosystem in Sydney – not picking winners.”

How can Sydney compete globally against cities like Singapore, Shanghai and even Wellington?

“Sydney is consistently ranked as one of the leading global cities – we are one of the Asia-Pacific’s finance hubs and host high-quality ICT, professional and business services, educational institutions and creative sectors. Sydney also has high liveability which is important for attracting and retaining talent.

“In addition to improving the capacity of our tech start-ups ecosystem to support local, innovative companies become global companies, we need to address some of the other issues affecting the functioning of our economy and society such as the affordable housing crisis.”

The Clover Moore team comes with the advantage of incumbency despite the hostility of Macquarie Street and the performance of the City of Sydney and the growth of the tech community under Moore’s administration has been remarkable.

How much of this is attributable to Moore’s leadership is another question, however her policies are similar to those of other successful tech cities like San Francisco, London, New York, Wellington and Singapore.

Singapore and Wellington probably illustrate the weakness of Moore’s leadership in that both the island state and New Zealand don’t have a level of provincial government whose parties are hostile to independent administrations as is the case where successive Labor and Liberal governments have interfered in the City of Sydney’s operations.

That however hasn’t stopped Moore from investing in the city’s infrastructure and making it a place attractive to startups and tech businesses. Making the city a better place to live and work may be Moore’s biggest attraction for the startup sector.

Sep 072016
 

Of all the contenders in the City of Sydney elections, the Liberal Party’s Christine Forster seems the candidate with the best chance of beating incumbent Clover Moore. For the city’s tech industry and startup communities, the Liberals have made a strong pitch.

At the last council election in 2012, the Liberal Party’s Edward Mandla – who has since defected to the Sydney Matters group – was the second placed candidate with 16% of the popular vote after incumbent Clover Moore’s 51%. With the voting rules changed this year to allow business owners to vote alongside residents, Forster is expected to pick up a substantially bigger proportion of the poll

Like Sydney Matters’ Angela Vithoulkas, Christine Forster sees Brisbane as being the example Sydney should be following in encouraging startups. In her detailed tech policy Forster laid out what is probably the most ambitious agenda of the major candidates.

The Liberal policy paper points out Sydney is home to nearly two thirds of the Australian startup community but doesn’t rate well internationally. She proposes addressing that through establishing a Sydney Emerging Entrerpeneurs Program to provide support and small grants.

Forster promises an incubator offering affordable office space based on ‘The Capital’ in Brisbane setting up a working hub to address the crippling commercial rental costs and establishing global ‘launching pads’ for local entrepreneurs in key overseas centres.

“To help promote Sydney to US companies wanting to establish an outpost to expand into Asia, we will establish an office in San Francisco, and investigate further offices in Guangzhou and Singapore,” Councillor Forster is quoted in the policy’s media release as saying.

Of the standard questions we asked the four major candidates, Cr Forster’s team answered them in bullet points;

What are your policies relating to encouraging tech startups?

  • I will commit to Council providing affordable office space for start-ups
  • I plan to establish an Incubator, similar to The Capital’ in Brisbane
  • I will establish a ‘Sydney Emerging Entrepreneurs Program’ providing practical support and small grants to the city’s best emerging start-ups. (One of these already exists in Brisbane.)
  • Appoint a Digital Director for the City of Sydney
  • Set up a ‘City of Sydney Digi-Challenge’ to help solve local council issues though digital leadership
  • Have clear goals for digital policy achievement benchmarked against globally accepted measures.

What do you see as Sydney’s strengths in this sector?

  • Sydney is Australia’s most visible global city. People and businesses want to come here to live and work.
  • Sydney is home to an educated, technically literate population and three world class universities.
  • Sydney already has a strongly entrepreneurial culture and outstanding local success stories – think of Atlassian and Freelancer.com.

What are we not doing well at the moment?

  • Lord Mayor Clover Moore doesn’t intuitively see business as part of the community – she treats business as the enemy
  • Council has not embraced new technologies, it is not business-friendly and dealing with it is notoriously bureaucratic, expensive and time-consuming
  • Clover has mishandled opportunities for the community because she doesn’t understand what businesses need. One notable example is Council’s failure to secure an anchor tenant for its Oxford St properties
  • Business contributes around 80% of rates to the City of Sydney but the Council has not been living up to its own KPIs.

What are we doing well?

  • Not a lot. We’re trading on our name and on the fact that Sydney is physically beautiful and well located.

How do you see the City’s relations with state and Federal government affecting current efforts?

  • Any relationship needs to be more collegial than it has been. There are situations where I disagree with tech and innovation policies at the State and Federal levels but where these arise, I prefer to negotiate to achieve a solution. Clover has made much of “taking the fight up” to other levels of government – I don’t believe it’s a fight, it has to be a negotiation.

Currently Victoria and Queensland are doing better at attracting businesses. Should we do anything to counter that and, if so, what?

  • I don’t believe we should think in adversarial terms – I want Australia to attract more business.
  • But that doesn’t mean Sydney has nothing to learn from Brisbane or Melbourne.
  • I want to set up a ‘Revive Oxford St’ taskforce bringing together residents, business, local and state government representatives to build a strategy – at the moment I’m thinking a QVB-style development in which we offer organisations with experience reviving retail precincts an opportunity to tender on how they could sensitively revive this important cultural precinct
  • I want to establish a dedicated office in our sister-city of San Francisco to promote Sydney’s potential as a stepping-stone for tech companies interested in expanding into Asia. The office will provide advice on establishing an office in Sydney.
  • I will also improve Council’s online services. I’ve got costings to show that with 10% of services moving to digital we could cut costs by $5-$10m p.a. That money could then be reallocated to community projects in each of the eight villages.

How can Sydney compete globally against cities like Singapore, Shanghai and even Wellington?

  • By making it easier to do business for a start, but also improving the city’s amenity. One of my policies is a simple but important one – increase the number of bins and make recycling easier in public areas to get rubbish off the streets.
  • Facilitate the establishment of a ‘SydneyOne’ ticket that covers all local arts, culture and tourism destinations. If Singapore and London can do this – and make it available online – so can Sydney.
  • We are also investigating ways of delivering free Wi-Fi in public areas.

How does your tech industry policy fit in with other key Sydney employment sectors like the creative industries, financial services and education?

  • I want it to cease to be a ‘poor relation’. Sydney has a global reputation in finance, the arts and education. Walk through Martin Place and look up; walk through Sydney University or UTS and look around you; go to the Opera House. These activities are so obvious as to be stereotypical. I want people to think of our tech sector in the same way. I want there to be 10 Freelancer.coms, not one.


Christine Forster and the Liberal Party have an ambitious program to place Sydney as global centre and, given the Liberals also hold government at state and Federal level, their platform does hold the promise of improved relations between the city council and other layers of government.

However the state government has been very slow in identifying the tech sector as being important to the regional economy and its focus on property development makes one wonder what the priorities would be if every level of government was dominated by the Liberals – the decision to sell the Australian Technology Park over the protests of the tech community speaks volumes on Macquarie Street’s attitude towards the sector.

At the Federal level, the innovation agenda seems stalled and confused with little likelihood of any reforms to address the causes of Sydney’s high property prices being addressed or further changes to the tax system to encourage investment in new technologies and businesses.

If anything, the declining fortunes of the Liberal Party at a state and Federal level may well damage Forster’s local campaign and detract from her message. The message though does flag an understanding at the local government level of the importance of the tech community to the city.