Category Archives: technology

Thoughts on saving Twitter

Ongoing annual losses and a lack of user growth has meant that Twitter has long been considered ‘at risk’ as an independent company. Most recently there have been several reported failed takeover bids from suitors including Salesforce and Disney.

And what is the problem exactly? Twitter has over 310 million monthly active  users. For many Twitter is an extraordinary medium for learning, discussing and sharing. I’ve found it to be the one social medium I have used consistently over the years. Yes I’ve had bad times on there – awful abuse which Twitter the company did nothing about, but Sussex Police handled superbly. But these negative moments have been by far outweighed by the positives: Reading things I’d never normally see, hearing different views, meeting interesting new people and staying in touch with old friends. And above all I’ve found Twitter to be a place where politics can become more interesting. As a politician the ability to communicate (and rebut) directly was powerful. Now as a citizen and someone working in policy, being able to see politicians, analysts and journalists working in public is both fascinating and useful.

This all has value. Huge value, just perhaps not the level of monetary value the market seems to expect when they compare it with Facebook’s 1.7 billion monthly users.

And therein lies the rub. Since Twitter floated on the public markets it has been judged against juggernauts like Facebook and Google. Yes they have produced extraordinary revenue streams, which is great for their investors. But not everyone can nor should aspire to those levels of income and growth. Yet I fear Twitter has been hurting itself and its users in a doomed quest to satiate unreasonable market expectations.

Perhaps trying to beat those expectations has been why we’ve seen such a high turnover of executives at Twitter, including CEOs. But it’s unclear to me whether this is a cause or symptom of the problems. Maybe someone will get the real inside scoop one day.

Given the fact that so many of us value Twitter I’d like to suggest that the company focussed on serving our needs first and foremost. I’m genuinely worried we could lose a valuable online community so here are some thoughts I’ve jotted down on a viable way forward…

  • What features would average users (like me) pay for in a ‘PRO’ level subscription account?
  • Similarly, given the impact celebrities and corporates can gain from their Twitter presence, how can that be tiered into free and paid-for packages?

I think it’s essential that anyone can post and read tweets for the community that Twitter offers to keep working. So what sorts of features could reasonably be held back for paying users? Some ideas, which probably have been suggested many times over by others before, for features to restrict to paying Twitter users only:

  • Analytics: Anything beyond basic numbers (how many followers, retweets etc).
  • Graphics: Ability to attach more than one image or video to a tweet.
  • API access: This will outrage some, but I think providing access through apps should be a feature which is either paid for by the user or the app developer.
  • Archives: This already happens to some extent at corporate level, e.g. Google paid for access, but individual access to the full searchable archive and an option to auto-archive media into other services (e.g. all photos you tweet get saved in Dropbox/iCloud/whatever) could be a paid option.
  • Premium status: A paying customer should get quicker support, faster verified status (if needed) and so on. I wouldn’t want a premium label (a la LinkedIn) to appear on profiles, but I would understand why if it did happen.

How much would I pay for something like this as an ordinary user? I’d guess between £12 and £20 a year. Let’s pretend that would be the only revenue source for Twitter (so forget the bigger bucks corporate accounts and advertising should attract) and model it on 5% of active monthly users signing up at the lower end of the price bracket. In the scenario Twitter would be booking  £186m revenue every year.  That’s $230m in US dollars. Surely enough to run a sustainable social network on, especially if you throw in the online advertising and licensing income already coming in?

Unfortunately Twitter’s cost base has ballooned from $172 million/year to an astonishing $1.94 billion/year in 2015. Gross income has not kept up so Twitter has been consistently booking a loss, though the gap is narrowing. It’s hard to see what we users are getting for the $800m/year being spent on R&D and perhaps spending on video deals for the NFL aren’t the greatest uses of cash so I’d imagine there’s room to reduce the cost base. I think on its own terms Twitter can and should be financially viable.

The question for me is this: Is it reasonable to be chasing billion dollar revenues to please Wall Street, when a perfectly sustainable business exists ‘down’ in the hundreds of millions level, rather than the billions.

We risk seeing this wonderful community being killed or seriously damaged in the search for ways to turn it into a billion dollar company, when maybe, just maybe, sustainable life was only possible lower down the mountain. That would be a crying shame.

 

Culture, values and accountability: Are network aggregators like Airbnb and Uber really just a middle-man?

The media is ablaze with analysis with what sites like Airbnb, Uber and others mean for the future of work, our economies and local government mandates over regulated services like hotels and taxis[1. Good recent  posts on this include those by Tim O’ReillyLauren Smiley, Matt Buchanan.].

Lots of businesses are now being pitched as the ‘Uber for x’ or ‘Airbnb for y’. The sort of network aggregation model they offer is becoming a dominant mental model for many discussions on digital transformation at the moment. So I think it’s worth some further consideration because I don’t think this model in practice is quite as clear-cut as some suggest, though it certainly is disruptive.

In essence the thinking goes that network aggregators are simply making the market more efficient. They connect customers with providers more efficiently than ever before. They lower barriers to entry so that underused resources (homes, cars, drivers etc) can access the market to generate revenue whilst meeting consumer demand. Quite simply the thinking I’m seeing expressed is that they (network aggregators) are like the travel agent matching a holiday package with the customer’s budget and desires with underused airplanes and hotels lowering their prices to attract more demand – but now individuals are the providers using their own cars, homes and time.

Airbnb and Uber often say that they just are making connections between buyers and sellers. They argue that the quality of the service, the accuracy of the service listing, the liability etc all lie with the providers who are categorically not employees of the network aggregator. Yet it’s not quite that simple.

First we have the reviews and verifications these aggregators offer their ‘community’ to assure quality. These can go as far as checking the passports and other identity documents of providers. Then we have the controls on pricing they offer plus the overarching branding they lay on top of the providers similar to a hotel chain or limousine firm. We also have the customer service they end up providing. They try to nudge you into resolving problems directly with the providers but if you can’t then they regularly step in to intervene, to offer refunds and smooth things over, desperate to avoid negative stories sticking to their surging brands[2. I have personal experience of network aggregators forking out hundreds of dollars to leave everyone feeling happy with their brand after things have gone wrong].

So network aggregators aren’t merely aggregating supply and demand, they are building brands and owning customer relationships so much so that they will even extend refunds and credits when the provider won’t. Yet because of their very nature and their legally-driven insistence that they don’t employ the providers they have few ways in which to encourage genuinely better behaviour. We see Uber and Airbnb offering programmes trying to encourage and celebrate their best providers but to me they read like weak cultural change programmes with no oomph.

Because ultimately this comes down to culture, values and accountability. (Well what doesn’t?!) Tom Peters rightly said that culture eats strategy for breakfast. Successful hotel chains like Accor know this – their brand is a promise that wherever in the world you are you will get a good night’s sleep, a comfortable bed, a certain kind of breakfast and service etc. If anything goes wrong they train and incentivise their staff in ways to not just make it right but to leave the customer feeling better about the brand than before. Good taxi and limo firms keep their drivers trained up on serving customers with disabilities, on major works happening in their patch, they trial new vehicles and tools for improved efficiency, safety and access. They get to know particular clients with certain preferences and needs.

Now any individual provider to a network aggregator can and does do those things, I’m sure. Most likely they will even get good reviews. But how does this scale? What kind of experience can Airbnb and Uber promise me? Nothing really. Offering a special badge or annual $100 voucher to their best providers is light years away from the organisational leadership, accountability and values a good firm in any sector can provide.

So where does this take us? Network aggregators almost certainly open up the opportunities for micro businesses to reach more customers than ever before. And for now the big ‘unicorn’ aggregators are willing to spend time and money to retain customers even after bad experiences. They are even financing some of their providers, as Uber do with car loans. But that won’t be able to continue indefinitely, at some point either after launching onto the stockmarket or with a private owner, profits will need to be made. The result will have to be far greater control over providers and/or retreat from the level of support offered to customers.

Are there lesson we can take from the network aggregators? Most certainly but we must do so with caution – recognising that they are not proven, sustainable businesses yet and that they aren’t quite the light-touch networks they like us to think they are.

If one applies this to public services then I believe ultimate accountability will continue to lie with public bodies, even as delivery becomes ever more distributed, digital and networked. Agile and networked we should be, but the need for accountability, culture and values can’t be magicked away in a puff of network aggregation.

Local Government’s challenge: Digital Transformation

I recently had the privilege of addressing the first LGA Digital Workshop for council leaders and cabinet members. Held at my alma mater Warwick University, the 2 day session attracted nearly 20 senior councillors. I was really delighted that the event had been put on, with a range of essential voices like MySociety and Emer Coleman participating.

I’d been partly responsible for this workshop happening: When I addressed the Local Government Association’s staff conference last December one of my challenges to them had been to lead the sector’s digital transformation. So I’m delighted that they are rising to that challenge.

Here’s a précis of what I said to the Digital Workshop in Warwick:

As a sector we have to be honest with ourselves, the truth is that we have underinvested in our staff and their training.  It has been too easy to trim training budgets every year and whilst focussed on just keeping going. That staff do have digital skills is more down to chance – either they’ve brought them from earlier in their career, or more likely is that their own curiosity has helped them develop skills at home, such as through hobbies and voluntary work.
The scattering of digitally literate staff we have just isn’t going to be enough. Local government, for perfectly rational reasons at the time, has long under invested in technical infrastructure and skills. But moving forward that just won’t do, digital talent won’t just be a ‘nice-to-have’ but critical to our future.
It is far too easy for our conversations on ‘being digital’ to focus almost exclusively on social media. Of course social media is exciting and important, especially for us politicians who are always keen to be seen, but it’s just one small element of the bigger picture.
There is huge potential for digital tools to be transformational for local government. Unfortunately we are behind the curve on this transformation. For example: My last two employers before I became a councillor full-time were completely virtual – no physical offices – we collaborated online daily with only the occasional meeting in person each year. By comparison I find many councils still not particularly comfortable with conference calls, but culturally committed to lots of in-person meetings.
Our citizens’ expectations for our flexibility and responsiveness is continuing to grow. And of course the extreme budget pressures we are under mean we must find new ways of working. I don’t believe we can maintain quality public services in the face of budget cuts without a digitally-led transformation for our councils.
This will require us to maintain skills and leadership on the digital agenda within the sector and individual councils. Many larger private sector firms are in the process of ‘in-sourcing’ their IT staff from external and often overseas suppliers. They recognise that their digital competency is such a critical competitive advantage that they need to keep it close by. Agility, including quick response to changing demands and technologies, are facilitated by in-house talent which you don’t need to spend ages agreeing a contract and detailed specification for. They can try things out, iterate based on the feedback and move on. We need to be able to do that too, whilst still using external support in targeted ways.
in Brighton & Hove our research shows that up to 70% of our citizens would be willing to self-serve online. That’s a huge opportunity for us to do things differently, release resources for those not able to go online and be more efficient. We’ve made some progress on those…
For example our environmental services call centre saw an average 30% drop in calls after strategically using social media and web to proactively inform citizens of service issues and offer advice in the face of weather conditions.
We are also trying to proactively push information out to reduce the demand for getting in touch. So we have launched the first council Freedom of Information site powered by MySociety’s What Do They Know. Responses are published on the site in the name of openness and to help reduce repeated requests for the same things. Also to help with openness I host a regular webcast called ‘Open Door‘ to discuss key issues for the city. These are archived and are regularly referred to online as sources of information.
It’s important to never assume that we know who the audience is for digital channels. In some of our user research a young male construction worker with an iPhone struggled to complete simple actions on the web because he didn’t know how to use it. He didn’t know how to get online from his smartphone. All ages can be struggling with digital or happily surging away, so we must keep that in mind.
Also don’t assume that just because someone put a page on the council website that it’s useful! We’ve removed hundreds of pages of content from the council website with no complaints. The site is now easier to browse and less of a burden to maintain.
Unfortunately the politics of local government and historical attitudes often mean we have a low risk appetite. This failure to support ideas that could end in failure undermines the experimental and agile approaches which are essential to successful digital programmes. We must overcome this, I believe the risks of doing nothing are far greater than of trying a few things that might not work out first time.
Once this workshop is over, we cannot all return to our town halls and scratch around on this alone. We must collectivise our digital action. We must build on existing tools like personal data stores and the government identity assurance programme rather than creating hundreds of isolated ‘My Councils’. We must also avoid ‘divide and conquer’ by suppliers.
The success of the Government Digital Service (GDS) gives some ideas on how to move forward as a sector, including finding ways to attract and retain talent, this will need to include pay. The Local Government Association must be pushed and supported to build the local government sectors’ GDS equivalent.
So in conclusion, the opportunities from digital transformation for our councils are huge. But we aren’t there yet, by a long way. We need to ensure we have the right talent and skills in our councils, we must boost our risk appetites to enable iterative experimentation and we cannot go it alone – we must work together.

City Council pleads with staff to surrender their Blackberries

Belts are tightening as we get ever closer to the date when the 2011/12 budget has to be set for Brighton & Hove City Council. With £30 million of front-loaded Coalition government cuts to find, council officers are quite reasonably reviewing and challenging every expenditure.

A recent email sent around by the Council’s IT department asks staff to consider whether they really, really need their Blackberry. If not, could they give it up and perhaps live without a mobile phone at all? Perfectly sensible, there may be people who don’t really need their Blackberries but still have one in a drawer somewhere.

What’s interesting are the costs the Council apparently incurs per Blackberry: A device on a two year contract costs £432/year before call charges plus £105 in setup and licence charges. (The monthly breakdown is £19 for Vodafone tariff and £17 for Blackberry & ICT support charges)

So before a single call is made or text is sent, a Blackberry will cost tax payers £969 over its two year contract period. That much of this goes to Vodafone is particularly galling given their tax avoider status.

This is another symptom of the Council’s gold plated approach to ICT. No criticism of the current Head of ICT, this predates him by some time. The Blackberries came in under the Labour administration and carried on under the Tories. As did the huge all-encompassing Microsoft licensing deal. Rather than find good-enough solutions, the approach has been to dive for the big name brands as soon as they offer a hint of a discount from their pre-inflated prices. Then we’re locked in.

A small number of decent Linux servers and any smartphone would meet the messaging needs of the Council perfectly adequately at a fraction of the cost. Why are we paying license fees for Exchange servers and Blackberry servers?

Yes, let’s cut down on the unnecessary issuing of mobile devices and excessive use of costly services (they’re also cracking down on football scores and directory enquiries via mobiles). But let’s reconsider whether the whole architecture makes financial sense too. Almost a grand for mobile access to email just doesn’t seem reasonable to me.

[Note: Most councillors from most parties use Blackberries. As far as I’m aware this is the first time we’ve been made aware of the cost they incur. This is no criticism of councillors for whom Blackberries are a lifeline to keeping on top of Council work whilst juggling their other responsibilities. I personally don’t have a Council Blackberry because I just don’t really like them, having tried an iPhone I couldn’t face going back!]

Upcoming events in Brighton & Cambridge

Two events coming up soon which will be of interest to digital rights type people:

  • Debating the Digital Economy Act Thur 29th April
    I’ll be one of the contributors at this debate, organised by Wired Sussex here in Brighton.
  • Internet Voting: Threat or Menace Tue 27th April
    Jeremy Epstein from SRI International is over in the UK and will be giving a talk at Cambridge Uni’s Computer Lab Security Seminar series. I did one of these a few years ago and it was highly enjoyable – the audience were engaged and very generous with their interest.

False choices

My wife’s cousin is an electrical engineer. In his spare time he noodles around with lots of kit. For example he buys broken TomTom satnavs off eBay and fixes them up.

He’s really good at it and in the process he’s discovered something very interesting. Despite the appearance of many different models in fact most of them have identical hardware features. Indeed much of the functionality that TomTom only provide in the more expensive models is there in all of them – they just turn it off in the software.

Think about that – they build it in the device. You hold the functionality (e.g. USB2.0 connectivity) in your hands. But TomTom force you to either pay more or it won’t work. Some will say that’s rife across many industries but I think it’s wasteful and disrespectful.

Imagine if the Apple iPhone 3GS (which has a built in GPS receiver) was sold in two models, with navigation and without. The only difference would be in software. I can’t see Apple doing that because: They like to keep their product line simple, and they (generally) treat customers well.

Something else he’s discovered is that many of the TomTom software updates work fine on old models, they just block them from running with hardware version number checks – forcing demand to buy newer models.

False choices (between the 13 models of TomTom car satnavs currently on sale) are bad for customers and ultimately bad for business: We don’t want to have to make difficult choices between all the versions; we don’t want to realise that we’re being extorted to use hardware features we’ve already bought or upgrade when our existing kit is good enough. Today’s smart consumers aren’t going to put up with this kind of behaviour.

Ada Lovelace Day: Women in Technology

Today is Ada Lovelace Day and I pledged to write a blog post on women in technology. So here we are..

It's easy for me to offer examples of women in technology as, for some reason I don't understand, there are plenty of women involved in (mostly opposing) electronic voting. Here are some of the leading lights in no particular order, I apologise in advance for any omissions:

  • Rebecca Mercuri: One of the first people to study electronic voting in computer science terms. Her PhD was on e-voting and she's been a vocal opponent ever since.
  • Barbara Simons: President of the ACM for two years, a former IBM researcher she is an influential critic of electronic voting and was a co-author of the SERVE report which stopped the US government pursuing Internet voting.
  • Margaret McGaley: One of the key activists against e-voting in Ireland and recently completed a Computer Science PhD on electronic voting.
  • Bev Harris: A leading force behind the BlackBoxVoting activist group in the US, a key player in the Diebold security scandals and lead character in the documentary “Hacking Democracy”.
  • Becky Hogge: Becky was until this January the Executive Director of the Open Rights Group and so played a critical role in the past two years of their campaigning against electronic voting.
  • Louise Ferguson: Louise is a leading usability expert who has played a major role in opposition to e-voting in the UK. She has also contributed to work on both sides of the Atlantic in improving the usability of the voting process. She also chaired the Open Rights Group through much of its e-voting campaign.
  • Lorrie Faith Cranor: Lorrie was an early researcher of e-voting who over time has become more critical of the technologies. Her early work on 'Sensus', an e-voting system, was pioneering at the time and probably informed her subsequent caution.

Of course none of these one liners do justice to these women, but by flagging them up here I hope to emphasise the huge role women can and do play in technology.

Ada Lovelace was an extraordinary woman and widely considered the first programmer, more on her life at Wikipedia

Backup strategy: Drobo, JungleDisk & Time Machine

Back in March this year our home was burgled. They took lots of stuff including my iMac and week old MacBook Air. Thankfully they left behind an old iBook and all my external backup disks even though they had all been in the same room as the computers they took.

Still, getting back up to speed in my work and homelife was a slow process. Thanks to an ad-hoc strategy (when I remembered basically), my backups were a week old so I did lose some work however relying on server-based IMAP mail meant email was ok.

Whilst waiting for the replacements to come (and I have to say the insurers were great in getting everything) I put some thought into a better backup strategy. I already had two 1TB LaCie external Firewire hard disks that were mirrored using software RAID. My first step was to schedule SuperDuper to backup a full system image to the LaCies every other night.

I got a third, smaller, LaCie drive also on FW800 so that I could use Time Machine as a more fine-grained incremental backup, but of my home folder only. This wouldn't let me do a full restore but could recover from file corruption and deletions in error.

Finally, to cover the scenario of fire, flooding or another burglary I set up JungleDisk as a remote backup system of my home folder (less music and movies). This uses Amazon S3 as a low cost reliable online storage system 'in the cloud'. The Mac client was a bit flakey originally but now is superb and I can highly recommend it though I have turned off encryption to prevent lock-in improve speed. The initial backup took an extremely long time, days, but now nightly backups only upload changes. This plus a move to 20MB broadband has made JungleDisk completely practical.

Back to those LaCie drives… Unfortunately, while the 800MB connection was fast, the many drives and RAID software meant initial access after they had gone to sleep or on a reboot was painfully slow… minutes in fact. I also found the software RAID to not be particularly reliable if one of the disks experienced problems. This may have been compounded by each LaCie 1TB disk actually having two hard drives inside it. Throw in the cables and three power adaptors involved and I wasn't happy about the setup or its power consumption.

Enter the Drobo, a clever drive system which uses RAID-like features to store your data across up to 4 drives which are removable and upgradeable. Even better this was all handled on the Drobo, no software was needed on the computers accessing it. I had been watching this for a while, aware of my growing storage requirements however on launch it had been USB 2 only and I knew only Firewire 800 would meet my needs.

Lo and behold they released an updated version with FW800 and I was tempted. When one of my LaCie drives started to have trouble I quickly resolved to buy the Drobo. To be fair to LaCie I've used many external drives and I personally have found LaCie drives to be excellent, quiet and fast. They also come with all the cables you need which I find to be a very decent touch, especially when there are three or four types they include for all the possible connectors. Yet drives do die and comparing the cost of a new LaCie, or the wait on warranty, versus getting a new 1TB drive for the Drobo only further makes the case for Drobo. I bought the very quiet and low energy Western Digital Caviar Green Power 1TB drives. The price on Amazon seems to keep dropping giving an excellent cost per GB.

The Drobo and Green Power drives were extremely easy to set up. The Drobo was nicely presented in a Mac-like fashion. The only minor quibble was that the provided software didn't alert me to new versions being available despite saying it had checked. A manual download from Drobo resolved this and now I'm delighted with how fast, quiet and painless using the Drobo has been. With two 1TB disks formatted as a single Drobo partition I have SuperDuper backing up to a sparse image every other night. I also have Time Machine continually backing up to a sparse disk image thanks to Erik Barzeski's investigations' which I came to via the always excellent Jon Gruber.

One thing worth noting that I didn't see mentioned on Erik's post is that you can't restore from your Drobo Time Machine backup via the swishy star warp interface (for want of a better name!). You need to manually mount the disk image and use the Finder to copy over the files you need. Not as cute but I've tested it and it works fine.

So now I have one local gadget, the Drobo, and JungleDisk in the cloud for all my backup needs. Less cables, less power adaptors and less hassle. I certainly don't want to see any more burlars but I'm glad I rethought my backups. Please have a look at what you're doing to protect your data too.

UPDATE 23/1/09: Paul Owen points me to a comment on Erk's Drobo post which shows that the 'warp interface' can still be used in fact:

When you want to restore a file from a sparse bundle, mount the sparse bundle manually. Then option-click the TM icon in the menu bar. You'll notice that the “Enter Time Machine” entry has changed to “Browse Other Time Machine Disks”. Use this option, navigate to your sparse bundle and — lo and behold — all your backups are there.

I have also decided to keep using a single LaCie disk as another offsite backup, I update it with SuperDuper every month or so and store it at my parents' house. It's painfree and just adds another level of comfort in case my Drobo is stolen/destroyed and restore from JungleDisk is problematic.

Larry’s the Daddy

Makes me wish I wasn’t already an ORG member, just so I can write Larry’s the Daddy. If you aren’t then join ORG for digital rights, civil liberties and solidarity with some truly wonderful people…

The next five people who sign up to support our work and include “Larry’s the Daddy” in the ‘how did you hear about’ field will receive, along with our growing list of support benefits, a signed copy of Remix.

Full ORG blog post

Ode to MacbBook Air

MacBook Air

I sort of promised to myself that I wouldn't write this post. It's a bit nauseating to read about how someone else has a new gadget… and it doesn't really add anything to the body of knowledge.

But… I relented from self-censorship because the MacBook Air I've had for the last week is not just a little different or a little better. Owning a MacBook Air has radically changed the way I use and think about my computer.

My previous MacBook was a decent solid computer, incredible for everything it could do and how well it did these things. Powerful processor and so on. Yet I never used or hardly used the majority of that functionality such as disc burning or audio in. For some people those things are essentials but for a 'knowledge worker' like me as long as I can connect to the Internet then I'm ok.

The MacBook (a recent one at that) was great but just too chunky and heavy to not notice it in my bag. The result was feeling like I was lugging a brick around – absurd when I recall how heavy my laptop was ten years ago – but still once I added a few reports in the bag it did add up. So often I just wouldn't pack my MacBook so I could feel more mobile… hmmm.

The MacBook Air is just so thin and light it's crazy not to take it everywhere. I'm using it to get through email and documents in all sorts of moments where previously I would be twiddling my thumbs or reading something useless I had picked up.

The Air's not for everyone, but as 37Signal's David Heinemeier Hansson has written, it could be the only machine for many people. I still enjoy using my 24″ iMac and just need a little effort to keep it synced with the MacBook Air. The other night I popped a rental DVD into the iMac and watched it on the MacBook Air in bed upstairs using VLC (Apple's DVD player won't play discs remotely for some pathetic fig-leaf copy protection reasons). Being so light the Air is the perfect player to snuggle with for a movie and doesn't risk setting the duvet on fire.

Given Apple have come this far with the form factor can a tablet be far off? It must be in the works but I like my keyboard and for many the MacBook Air is the game-changer.

MacBook vs Air