Tech City News – Issue 7, June 2015 – Dublin #StartupIreland

Feature work covered both words and photography.

The week in radio – the Robert Peston Interview Show (with Eddie Mair); Weekly Economics Podcast; Apple’s Beats 1

Miranda Sawyer’s Guardian review of the New Economics Foundation’s Weekly Economics Podcast, which I present each week on an economics issue of the day. First published here.

Mair and Peston made a good double act probing Julian Barnes on widowerhood, while Kirsty Styles’s economics podcast was refreshingly accessible

peston and mair

The Robert Peston Interview Show (with Eddie Mair) (Radio 4) | iPlayer

Weekly Economics Podcast (New Economics Foundation) | Podcast

Beats 1 | Apple.com

Eddie Mair and Robert Peston are two of the BBC’s greatest audio assets, and they have been exploiting their unlikely friendship on air for a while now: usually onPM, where Mair digs out Peston, and Peston complains back. Their old-couple bickering gets so spiky, it’s even been reported as a feud. It’s not, of course. Mair and Peston are journalists. Taking the mick out of each other is how they talk; it shows affection, not dislike.

To prove this, they’ve joined forces to present a new interview show for Radio 4. The idea is a bit of a gimmick: one of them chooses a celebrity and prepares for the interview, and the other doesn’t know who they’ll be talking to until the celebrity turns up. This week, Peston chose author Julian Barnes, very specifically because Barnes wrote Levels of Life, about how he coped after the death of his wife, Pat Kavanagh, in 2008. Peston’s wife, Siân Busby, died in 2012, and, he said at the beginning of the programme that he’d spoken to a lot of widows but no widowers.

The interview was excellent, Peston’s personal probing given grit by Mair’s sharp interjections. When Barnes mentioned that he’d considered suicide, Mair asked, “Did you think about a method?” and “What stopped you?” He also stepped in during an exchange between Peston and Barnes about how people – especially older English men – are rubbish at talking to their friends when they are grieving. “What did you want in these circumstances?” asked Mair.

Barnes was interesting: polite, precise and calm, a cool counterpart to Peston, whose distinctive speech mannerisms – a paaaaauuuse theeen wordscomerattattat – are rooted in a slight insecurity. Mair’s desire to go for the jugular and the joke worked well as a foil to both. I’m looking forward to next week, when Mair gets to choose and host the interviewee, and Peston must pipe up with his secondary questions.

Peston, of course, is the BBC’s money man, their economics editor, and, as he’s BBC, he is bound by law to be fair. Not so Weekly Economics Podcast, the relatively new audio offering from the New Economics Foundation, a thinktank that promotes social, economic and ecological justice. Each show is short, no longer than 20 minutes, and accessibly presented by the lively and engaging Kirsty Styles. Usually, she talks to James Meadway, senior economist at the NEF, but sometimes others, and each week they unpick some aspect of the UK economic news. As George Osborne appears to have been let off the leash since the election, coming up with madder and madder monetary policies, there is a lot to talk about. This week’s discussion about his proposal to sell off RBS at a loss of £13bn to the taxpayer was revealing and shocking. Was it biased? Well, you’d say yes if you were Osborne. To me, it sounded like they were talking a lot of sense.

Finally, a quick note about Apple’s new radio station, Beats 1, which will launch 30 June. It’s going to broadcast across the world, every day, all day, everyone! As though umpteen radio stations don’t do that already… Still, with its poaching of Zane Lowe from Radio 1 and Rinse’s Julie Adenuga, as well as Ebro Darden, who represents the New York hip-hop side of things, Beats 1 is clearly aiming at… well, me. Me and anyone else who hops between Radio 1 and 6Music, Rinse and Mixcloud. These are music experts, not “presenters”, so hopes are set high. We’ll see.

Snowden: Spying is “much worse in the UK than the United States”

Written for Tech City News and first published here.

Mass government surveillance is “much worse in the UK than the United States,” NSA whistleblower Ed Snowden has warned.

Speaking at Nesta’s FutureFest Snowden said the “light oversight regime” here has seen billions of normal people’s communications routinely accessed by GCHQ. “It’s not security – it’s spying.”

He pointed to the recent rebranding of this activity, from mass surveillance to “bulk collection”, saying that: “we have to get the government to admit there’s a problem… we can’t let them redefine it.”

Snowden left his $200,000 per year job working for the US’ National Security Agency back in 2013 after he after he felt he “could not consciously participate in” what he saw happening.

He says officials from the UK, Canada, the United States, New Zealand and Australia were able to use a searchable database to look through communications records. “Our communications are being stolen and stored so they can be rifled through at the convenience of security agents.”

Snowden advocates end-to-end encryption but says he is “fairly conservative” on surveillance “if they [government officials] have a warrant from a court”. He said he believes the technical side will win, as it’s easier to protect communications in transit than it is to enforce legislation in every country in the world.

He pointed to Iceland’s anti-surveillance stance and said it’s likely that data centres and other services will start to locate there if they feel they cannot be protected from mass surveillance in their own countries.

Today’s “pre-criminal” activity, he said, is “an incredible departure from the liberal tradition… If we go along with the status quo then we will be living in a mass surveillance world.”

Mobile Marketing Magazine – Issue 19, March 2015 – 2015: The Year Iteration, Not Innovation is Key

Written for the 18th edition of Mobile Marketing Magazine. See the full issue here.

So the New Year hasn’t quite brought the ‘new you’ that the mobile industry might have been looking for, instead we all seem to be focused on delivering, or perfecting, those innovations we’ve all been talking about since that fated ‘year of mobile’.

With sales halted on the current version of Google Glass, plus wearables like Nike FuelBand resigned to the scrap heap, it’s clear that smart device-makers are doing some soul-searching. Despite several new launches at CES, Apple’s Watch, set to launch this Spring, is really the only wearable on everyone’s mind.

But check out the Uno Noteband for something a little bit different. The device, which has just completed a successful crowdfund on Indiegogo, comes pre-loaded with Spritz fast-reading software that promises to help you read a 300-page book in 90 minutes. This might be the key to keeping your New Year’s resolution to read more books, while Bond could be just the app to help you keep those promises of regular contact with family and friends, enabling you to set regular reminders to reach out to certain people, on whichever platform they want to hear from you.

It’s clear the handset market is still hot though, with Chinese upstart Xiaomi sealing its position as the world’s third-best selling handset in 2014, and rousing investment rumours from big players like Facebook. The company, founded in 2010, has just unveiled a couple of handsome handsets that are shorter, thinner, lighter and much cheaper than the iPhone 6 Plus.

Although failing in its bid to get a slice of the Chinese device market, Facebook just made an interesting buyout in the form of Wit.ai, which could accelerate voice-controlled functionality in the social giant’ products. Facebook’s enterprise efforts are also a hot tip for 2015, if businesses are willing to part with their data of course!

Behind the scenes, Qualcomm has been working hard on improving the processing power of our much-loved smartphones, and its Snapdragon 810 is now coming into production in Windows and Android devices like the LG G Flex 2. This means better data speeds, longer battery life and optimised support of 4K, or ultra-high-definition, video.

And this is perfect timing for what’s becoming our all-video culture, with visual feasting set to represent 79% of all consumer internet traffic in 2018, up from 66% in 2013. With everyone from Facebook, Youtube, Amazon, Netflix, Instagram and Vice all vying your attention in this fast-growing media space, prepare for the definition of TV, the ad spend and the metrics to change dramatically.

And where would video be without, next gen video: virtual reality. Gamers are clearly the big winners in the growth of VR, and mobile games are already tipped to outsell consoles this year. But advertisers, too, will start to make virtual reality pay. Although the Tesco store walkaround was pretty awkward, companies like Chrysler are turning a ‘behind the scenes at the factory’ slot into a truly cinematic experience, with the help of Google Maps and Oculus Rift.

And where there’s ‘bells and whistles’ tech, there’s now a real drive to create the products and services that help every day. Covering everything from assistive technologies for people with disabilities, to ‘quantified self’ applications like Health from Apple, 2015 is surely the year that health products, and health data, become awesome. In Berlin, MiMi is using smartphones to help make hearing aid technologies accessible to all. Peak Vision is likewise bringing cheap eye tests to the developing world via its smartphone app.

And where there’s small data, there’s bigger data, the likes of which is helping smart city innovation trickle down to smart towns. MK:Smart is a £16m project currently smartening up Milton Keynes, proving that projects like this can be done on a smaller scale. The company behind this was just bought up by Huawei, while Samsung Ventures has invested in London-based IoT startup Everythng, so it’s certainly a battleground to wtach going into 2015.

Keep an eye on eye-tracking and facial-recognition tech, long-tipped to come into mainstream usage, save the creepiness factor, plus even more mobile-first product customisation, like that just announced at BBC News. Mobile money, yet again led by Apple, is also likely to become ‘just another thing we do’ come New Year’s Day 2016. But don’t think about that now, there’s a whole year of improvement and iteration to do first!

Mobile Marketing Magazine – Issue 19, March 2015 – Will it really be Twitter wot won it?

Written for the 18th edition of Mobile Marketing Magazine. See the full issue here.

January saw the celebration of Democracy Day here in the UK, this year marking the 750th anniversary of the country’s first parliament, although it’s perhaps not an occasion up there with Christmas. The month also saw anti-austerity party Syriza win a majority in Greece’s parliament, on the promise of a renegotiation of public debt obligations that many believe are crippling the country’s economic recovery. It was quite the month for democracy, if easily missed by the attention-poor British public.

The UK will be holding its own public vote in May, with some billing it the ‘lottery election’ because of the colourful range of parties that are in a real position to win seats this time. The Independent has narrowed the race down to just 100 key marginals, noting that Labour is likely to face fierce competition from the Scottish National Party post-#Indyref, and the Lib Dems are in danger of dropping from 57 to just 19 winning candidates post-LibCon.

Just as the political race has been thrown a little more wide open, the digital world has come a long way since we voted back in 2010, and no doubt contributing to the loosening grip of the ‘big two’ parties. Personally, I’ve switched from a BlackBerry, to a Samsung, and finally got comfortable as an iPhone user. Globally, the US and Europe went iPad mad, before realising we all only have two hands. But, despite near-peak-smartphone penetration in the UK, policymakers are still yet to give the green light to online, or better yet, mobile voting.

Digital democracy?

In true lumbering bureaucracy fashion, two different groups in parliament have been consulting simultaneously on proposals around a ‘digital democracy’. Speaker John Bercow’s Digital Democracy Commission has just produced its report, stating that internet voting could be online in time for the 2020 general election, while also noting that parliamentary language and procedures will need to be simplified by then if we have any hope that “everyone can understand what the House of Commons does”.

Although Cabinet Office minister Sam Gyimah believes: “the fact electronic voting is incredibly rare across the globe I believe is testament to some of the problems delivering it,” Anthony Walker from Tech UK says “we are confident the tools exist to address these challenges.” It’s something that’s been a reality in Estonia for a decade, where in 2005, it became the first country worldwide to offer legally binding online votes in a national election. The numbers casting their ballot in this way has risen from just under 10,000 people first time around, to a third of the population doing digital democracy in last year’s European elections.

The UK’s Political and Constitutional Reform Committee has likewise just finished accepting submissions on voter engagement, covering proposals including automatic registration, online voting and votes at 16. The former should be of particular interest to those who want more tech solutions in powerful places, given that moves by the Government Digital Service, tasked with transforming the British state for the 21st century, has tried to streamline voter registration and knocked almost 1m off the register in the process.

The Labour Party published its Digital Government report in November last year, calling for a digital government infrastructure that’s accessible to all. They cited figures from BT estimating that getting internet access means an equivalent extra £1,064 every year for each new user. The study points out that while the less well off are less likely to be online, 80 per cent of government interactions are with the poorest 25 per cent of people.

A new model for digital democracy is shaping up in the form of DemocracyOS, a cross-platform, open-source tool for debating and voting that’s being developed by a group of young professionals in Argentina. Its creators say: “The internet has changed everything: the way we share and consume culture, how we engage in commerce, and how we communicate with others. But the internet has failed to change in one key area of our lives: politics. Democracy is in great need of a serious upgrade.”

Having already appeared as part of a TED talk, and been demoed in front of the World Economic Forum, the project is about to be crowdfunded (of course) via a Kickstarter campaign. The vision is that voters will be given the opportunity to express their preferences on any given issue, directly to their elected representative, with the hope this will increase engagement with politics, and accountability of decision-makers.

Elsewhere in the world, and post-financial crash, the Icelandic public was given the opportunity to take part in drafting a crowdsourced constitution. The 10-month process saw an elected 25-member Constitutional Advisory Council seek feedback through social media sites before drafting the new document. But the effort ultimately failed in the country’s legislature, despite huge public support. In Seattle, meanwhile, an online game was used to challenge residents to pick funding priorities in order to close a very real $31.7m gap in the city’s 2013 budget.

Digital party?

So if we aren’t going to have a digitally-enabled election in the UK this time, how are the campaigns shaping up? It’s Barack Obama’s 2012 election campaign that usually springs to mind when considering great digital election campaigning. Harper Reed was certainly an unusual suspect when he was appointed CTO for the campaign, heading into the Oval office with a beard and thick-rimmed glasses you’d more likely find in Shoreditch than in power. But the victory won here is among the greatest examples the world has ever seen of big data being made genuinely useful, and much credit is given to the tech tools deployed during the race.

Going into 2015, and despite bringing in ‘the wizard of Oz’, Australian electoral guru Lynton Crosby on a £500,00 deal to secure electoral victory, the Conservatives look to be running more of a bad data campaign. The Spectator reports that the party is running two ‘rickety’ databases simultaneously in the run up to the May vote, VoteSource and Merlin, but points out this isn’t a new issue, with one campaigner admitting they “called quite a lot of dead people” in 2013’s Eastleigh by-election.

In contrast, Labour Digital, a young team of Labour supporters working in tech who ‘want Labour to be number one in digital’ has been called the party’s “most powerful weapon”. They created last year’s NHS Baby campaign, a minimally-party-branded tool that created lots of socially shareable nostalgia ‘I was the 25,484,298th baby born on the NHS’, while harvesting perhaps millions of email addresses in the process.

The cost-efficiency and democratic access that comes with digital campaigning has not gone unnoticed by the smaller parties. “Digital means a level playing field,” says Conservative defector Douglas Carswell. “Almost anything the big corporate parties do on massive central databases can now be done on a £600 laptop. With a good desktop publishing programme and an army of volunteers, you can compete on equal terms with the Westminster machines.” The ‘Reasons to Vote Green’ website, knocked up by a tech-savvy volunteer, has seen more than 42,000 Facebook shares.

Old news

In the past, the Sun was confident enough of its own power to influence the election debate that it printed the famed ‘It’s the Sun wot won it’ front page following the Conservative victory in 1992. But the most heated discussions around the election so far have been centred on the TV debate: will they won’t they? If they do, who will appear? And perhaps it’s the chatter happening around these TV spots that will make the biggest difference this time round. It’s still not quite clear whether Facebook ‘likes’ actually turn into votes, I know I follow UKIP on Twitter, but only so I know what they’re up to. But FremantleMedia’s Keith Hindle recently told the Guardian that the level of social engagement its TV shows drive is now more important to advertisers than TV ratings.

Twitter has taken this opportunity to start opening up and highlighting tools that could help political parties make an impact in target seats, including geo-targeting around individual postcodes. “This is potentially even more important in 2015 when the role of the smartphone will come to the fore as a way of connecting with voters,” Twitter says on its blog. “Mobile is in Twitter’s DNA: of Twitter’s 15m UK users, 80 per cent access the platform via their mobile device.”

But, unlike newspapers, digital doesn’t become tomorrow’s fish wrappers: the internet doesn’t forgive or forget. David Cameron was mocked early in 2014 for ‘paying people to like him’, in the form of a paid Facebook campaign. The party was also ripped to shreds on Buzzfeed for trying to delete from its website some of the promises made before the last election. “The Tories have attempted to wipe all of their pre-2010 speeches off the internet. So we’ve dug them out,” says the website’s political editor Jim Waterson. Many voter choice sites, like VoterforPolicies.org, have sprung up to cater for an audience that just wants to know now.

Unfortunately for the political parties, the world won’t wait for them. The challenges now facing political parties are the same of those being tackled by legacy brands: when people can make a one-click purchase on Amazon, why would they use our site? Do they trust us to look after their digital DNA? Although none of the parties have so far fallen foul of membership data leaks or breaches, given that discs containing information from three of the UK’s most sensitive inquiries around police misconduct just got lost in the post, let’s not put it past them. And are we being honest? If not, we could get found out pretty quickly.

Many modern citizens, some spurred into caring by the #GreenSurge and events taking place in Greece, are now trying to make their decision ahead of the May vote and will be expecting an online experience comparable with Airbnb or Netflix, something that’s pretty tough to deliver. The Green Party, for example, is funded entirely by its members, which means collaborative efforts have to be made to bring digital assets up to scratch.

But it’s not actually those digital-savvy consumers that are the people most likely to vote. Despite the cheeky antics and big conversations now made possible online, in the 2010 election, fewer than half (44 per cent) of 18 to 24s cast a ballot, while that shot up to 76 per cent of over 65s. As well as focusing on policies that favour older people, this perhaps explains the reluctance from the major parties to move to online or mobile voting: if you make it easier, digital, people might actually do democracy. And you wouldn’t want that now, would you?

Policies or personalities?

@David_Cameron = 905,000

@Ed_Miliband = 374,000

@nick_clegg = 207,000

@nigel_farage = 184,000

@uklabour = 172,000

@conservartives = 134,000

@thegreenparty = 102,000

@libdems = 79,600

@ukip = 79,200

@natalieben = 49,500