Dec 032016
 

“Like all great ideas it was conceived over a beer and executed over coffee,” says John Bishop, the joint founder and co-CEO of Pet Rescue. “A couple of friends and I were sitting in a bar back in 2003 and we came up with the idea, had a look around and there was no-one doing it in Australia at the time.”

John was talking to Decoding the New Economy at last week’s AWS Re:Invent conference in Las Vegas where he some time to explain how Pet Rescue uses the web to connect prospective pet owners with rescue shelters.

“Basically we help people find rescue pets in need of adoption,” John explains. “We work with the vast number of rescue groups in Australia. By rescue groups I mean pounds, shelters, vet clinics and foster care networks. There’s about 950 of those in Pet Rescue at the moment.”

Rabbits, guinea pigs and rats

The system allows accredited animal rescue services to list the pets they have available for adoption, “primarily cats and dogs but also rabbits, guinea pigs, pigs, chickens, there’s even one rat we’ve rehomed,” John laughs.

John was working as an IT manager with a consulting business on the side in 2004 when the site launched. “We didn’t know if it would work but I had the idea in my head the whole time I was building it that if one pet found a home rather than being killed then it would be worthwhile.”

“From day one I designed Pet Rescue to be as hands off as possible, once the members had access to it they could upload their own photos and things like that. It wasn’t groundbreaking in 2003 but it wasn’t that common”

“One of the biggest problems we faced in those early days was many of the rescue groups didn’t have digital cameras. So we did a promotion with a bunch of Kodak digital cameras that had been donated to us and gave them to the groups.”

A problem of scale

The site was quickly a success but that came with issues, particularly when the site was mentioned in the press or had a lot of social media attention. “Eventually we hit problems as I had gave no thought of architecting a site that would scale.”

While that scaling process didn’t go without problems, the service now sits in the public cloud with AWS so the Pet Rescue team can get on with connecting pets with owners, and John expects to help rehouse four thousand pets by the end of the year.

“Our challenge at the moment is we have a weird supply and demand problem happening, we have half a million unique visitors a month and helping rehome about five to six thousand. Another challenge is we’re still working on an old model of handling enquiries about the pets.”

“Our goal is to get to the point where we rehome 200,000 pets a year. Right now we’re looking at 90,000. It’s a bit of a magic number because that’s the number of pets that are unnecessirly killed each year so if we can get to that two hundred thousand we can zero that out.”

Finding funding

The bigger task for Pet Rescue is to find funding with the organisation as John doesn’t believe paid registration for the rescue groups or users is the best thing for the site, “we want to have as few barriers as possible,” he says.

Currently the service earns some money from advertising with some corporate partnerships in the pipeline. “We need money, it costs a lot to keep the site up and costs a lot for development.”

While many startups and corporations talk about using tech for good, Pet Rescue’s and John Bishop’s mission of ending unnecessary deaths of unplaced pets is a genuine worthy cause. By making it easier for companion animals to be adopted by the right households shows what technology can do.

Paul travelled to Las Vegas and the Re:Invent conference as a guest of Amazon Web Services.

Aug 122016
 

Last night I went along to the Awesome Foundation’s Sydney chapter‘s celebration of dispensing two million dollars in grants.

The Awesome foundation trustees and ambassadors meet once a month, throw a hundred dollars into the pot and grant a thousand dollars every month to the most awesome pitch they hear. Past Sydney winners have included super pollinators for native bees, Friday lunches for at-risk youth and setting up a rooftop garden for refugees.

What’s particularly impressive about the Foundation is that how the grants come with no strings. It’s a really good way to create grass roots projects.

Hopefully we’ll be seeing more programs like the Awesome Foundation, and more people like the trustees who make it possible.

Apr 072016
 
how can governments tax the internet?

Governments are struggling with the new channels of communication and the structures that will manage our societies are far from certain.

Last night the University of New South Wales’ School of Computer Science and Engineering in Sydney held a panel discussion about Digital citizens and the future of government. The group looked at how the open government movement is progressing and how public servants and politicians are dealing with a data driven world.

The panel featured Dominic Campbell, the founder of the UK’s FutureGov who are currently advising the Australian Digital Transformation office; Penny Webb-Smart, the Executive Director of Service Reform for the NSW Government’s clumsily named Department of Finance, Services and Innovation and Amelia Loye, a social scientist who worked on Australia’s first Action Plan for Open Government.

Centralising decision making

One key question for the panel was how governments use data which gives rise to two views. The prevalent view is information systems tend to centralise power – something that has been a feature of the last two centuries – while access to information is a democratising forces that hands control back to individuals and local communities.

Amelia made the point in some respects we’re already at the point where individuals can take control, “the tools for participatory government are already available, we have to start looking at – and talking about – how to use them,” she said.

That conversation certainly isn’t happening at the moment despite the odd blurting of fine words from ministers and public servants and while in some areas government data is being freed up, in others it’s increasingly being hoarded for political purposes or due to ill thought out privatisations.

Commercial in confidence

Private sector data is another problem for the open data movement as many of the functions carried out by governments are outsourced to companies which generally reluctant to share information with the public. This leaves communities with an incomplete picture of the data affecting them.

The main unanswered question in the discussion was the relationship between local and central governments, the panel’s consensus was central government would become more dominant and in the Australian context the states would become irrelevant. This however may not be true.

Centralised government is by no means a given, as the prevailing corporatist ideologies of Western governments strive to cut services it’s likely communities are going to increasingly find ways of delivering those services independent of national bureaucracies and politicians in capital cities.

Cumbersome central governments

Another unspoken aspect was the increasing cumbersome nature of central government. In fast moving economies it’s hard for the decision making structures based in capital cities to quickly react to societal and political changes. National governments may simply be too big to manage the data flows coming into them.

The main conclusion out of the evening’s discussion is there is great uncertainty about the structure of government in the digital era.

Uncertainty over how governments will be shaped by today’s changes isn’t surprising, increased communications and the change in public finances radically altered the role of government last century – the wars and economic downturns of the first third of the century saw the introduction of central government income taxes which central power in capital cities.

Changing communications

Similarly mass media communications, the radio and television, dramatically changed the politician’s role and how citizens interacted with government.

One great mistake today is many of our political, public service and business leaders think the current models are inviolate and fixed when in actual fact they are dynamic systems which are evolving with technology.

Governments are a reflection of the societies and economies they lead. Just as both the economy and society are changing so too will the structures of the public service and politics. We may not recognise some of those changes until well after they’ve happened.

Oct 242015
 

Thought of the day. We’re in at point of change in social and consumer behaviour similar to that of the late 1950s.

Sixty years ago the drivers were; the first baby boomers entering their teenage years, the rise of television, an era of accessible and cheap energy, along with rising incomes from the post World War II reconstruction.

Today the drivers are; the baby boomers entering retirement, the rise of the internet, an era of abundant and easily accessible data, the rise of the internet along with stagnant living standards following the late 20th Century credit orgy.

Your thoughts on where this goes?

Sep 182014
 

Yesterday Barcelona won the 2014 Bloomberg Mayors’ Challenge — a ideas competition for European cities.

Barcelona’s winning idea was collaborative care networks for older citizens. In Barcelona’s case one in five residents is over 65 and by 2o40 seniors will make up a quarter of the city’s population.

The approach Barcelona’s council has proposed is a combination of high tech and the community working together.

Barcelona will use digital and low-tech strategies to create a network of family members, friends, neighbors, social workers, and volunteers who together make up a “trust network” for each at-risk elderly resident.

Last year I had the opportunity to interview the Deputy Mayor of Barcelona, Antoni Vives, on how the city was using the internet of things to improve citizens’ lives.

In that interview Vives spoke on how important was that these technologies improved the lives of all citizens, not just the young and the rich. Today’s prize illustrates how the city is applying that philosophy.

For technologists, one of the tasks ahead is to show how today’s inventions are more than the toys of rich men, but are things that genuinely improve society’s well being.

 

Sep 012014
 

A briefcase sized device could wreak havoc in today’s networked world warns William Radasky in the IEEE Journal.

Fans of the  wave of nuclear war movies like The War Game or The Day After will remember the first bomb detonated in the attacks was a high level explosion designed to knock out electronic equipment.

The resultant Electro Magnetic Pulse leaves everything from military radar to civilian communications systems unusable.

In both The Day After and The War Game the high altitude detonations over Rochester and Kansas City destroyed motor cars’ ignitions leaving a key part of the nation’s infrastructure paralysed.

Unlike a zombie TV series, the unlucky survivors of a nuclear strike weren’t going to leap into the nearest abandoned Camaro and speed away from the heaving hungry masses.

What should be considered is The War Game was filmed in 1965 when electronics were not ubiquitous. Even then the scale of the damage from an EMP was substantial.

In today’s world, an wide scale EMP would bring down a region’s entire economy.

I’m writing this post on the 28th Floor of San Francisco’s St Francis hotel and were such a blast to happen now I’m not sure I’d be able to find the fire escapes as the emergency lighting would be fried — it’s not even worth considering the lifts.

What a first world city like San Francisco would like after all its technology, including electrical and communications systems, were knocked out doesn’t bear thinking out.

On the bright side, this means a devastating nuclear war killing millions may not be useful military strategy any more. To bomb a first world nation ‘back to the stone age’ just needs a handful of well targeted high altitude nukes.

The IEEE article is a timely reminder of both the fragility of our systems and the society that depends upon them.

Feb 082014
 
happy guy with lots of money

Adam Curtis in his wonderful BBC series All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace discusses how Ayn Rand influenced many in the tech industry.

Having been accused of being a ‘techno-utopist’ Curtis’ story is a good reminder of the limits of technology and how the future doesn’t usually turn out how we imagine.

The Ayn Rand influence is worth reflecting on as Rand’s libertarian outloook is shared by many in the technology industry – from the lowest PC technician to the highest flying software mogul.

Rand’s beliefs are best portrayed in her own words, in a 1958 interview with Mike Wallace she tells of how she believes in “challenging the moral code of altruism.”

In Rand’s world view it was the duty of each man to achieve their own happiness, self sacrifice and caring for other is weakness.

That technologists should have those views is curious in that the entire computer industry, the internet and Silicon Valley itself is the result of massive US government spending during World War II and the Cold War.

An more delicious irony is the centre of Silicon Valley, Stanford University, is itself the result of a bequest by railroad tycoon and former Californian governor Leland Stanford.

So self-sacrifice, altruism and government spending forms the basis of the entire modern tech industry – something that computer industry’s libertarians ignore, if they are conscious of history at all.

An even bigger contradiction is the belief that the internet dismantles government and corporate power – one of the lessons of Edward Snowden’s revelations is how comprehensively intelligence agencies monitor online communications.

When the history of Silicon Valley and the 21st Century tech boom is written, one of the compelling themes will be the contrast between the industry’s beliefs and reality.

The final chapters of that history will describe how that contrast between reality and beliefs is resolved.