Archive for December, 2010

There’s a dark side to all technology if it’s truly powerful and there are legion examples of how it can be used for good or for ill depending on how it is deployed.

A new mobile application called the Patriotapp “deputizes your iPhone or iPad” and is either a responsible citizen’s tool to aiding agencies of law and enforcement or a step towards a Stasi-like society of informers; it depends on your perspective.

The app was built by Florida software and services company Citizen Concepts to empower people “to create safer, cleaner, and more efficient communities by leveraging social networking and mobile technology.”

It shows the National Security Threat Level and has integrated points of contact to federal agencies like the FBI, including its Most Wanted list, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Government Accountability Office and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Icons lead to templates where you can report suspicious activity, crime, government waste – even a pandemic.

The app explicitly aims to encourage “active citizen participation in the War on Terror and in protecting their families and surrounding communities”.

The company states: “This app was founded on the belief that citizens can provide the most sophisticated and broad network of eyes and ears necessary to prevent terrorism, crime, environmental negligence, or other malicious behaviour.”

Crimestoppers on steroids? The march of Big Brother? An elaborate spoof? You tell me.

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Nowak bookIf you’ve ever wondered about the origin of technology that’s entered everyday life – or what’s coming next – then focusing on “the shameful trinity of needs” is probably a good place to start.

That’s the proposition of Canadian tech journalist Peter Nowak who believes the military-industrial complex, the fast food industry and porn merchants have driven development in ways that we often don’t realise.

He makes a compelling case in his book Sex, Bombs and Burgers: How War, Porn and Fast Food Shaped Technology As We Know It.

It’s packed with humour and fabulous stories such as how “one giant leap for mankind” brought us better hospital food and stricter quality control, and why the adult-film industry will help bring about better robotic limbs.

Nowak was interviewed earlier this month by my colleague Jamillah Knowles for an edition of her Outriders radio show

Making new Kinections
The perfect illustration of Nowak’s notions came at the offices of Microsoft earlier this week when members of the Online News Association were shown the gesture and voice-driven Kinect add-on for the Xbox 360 game system.

The company behind the interface is PrimeSense, an Israeli outfit whose founder, Aviad Maizels, was the head of an R&D tech section for Israel’s military intelligence service.

The embedded cameras in the Kinect Xbox are paired with a projector that emits infrared light in a speckle pattern. The camera looks for distortions in the pattern to decipher gestures and hand movement

Kinect also responds to voice commands and points the way to a world envisioned by Maizels where natural movement controls devices and where keypads and controllers become redundant. It certainly puts a different complexion on waving and shouting at the telly.

first flightTake cover! ONA UK members risk life and limb as I take the control of Gadget Tom’s iPhone-controlled flying machine at a fun-filled gadgetfest hosted by MSN, Victoria, London.

Mobile has pulled ahead of the desktop web as the “most important medium” to get breaking news.

That’s one of the main findings from a US survey of 300,000 people across a broad demographic range.

Yes, it was conducted by a mobile app developer, Handmark and, yes, it was questioning people who have bought into a smartphone lifestyle.

But it underlines, once more:

  • the growing importance of mobile for news consumption
  • that mobile and desktop services have different strengths
  • that there’s an opportunity to feed news demands in new and varied ways

Handmark CEO Paul Reddick believes 2011 will see consumers increasingly relying on their mobiles as a primary source of news and information and the survey findings bear that out.

It  assumes, of course, that network capability will keep up with demand for bandwidth and that’s far from certain.

But leaving that aside for now, I’ve long argued that mobile requires a different cut of content to mainstream web coverage and that it should convey the sense of flux and excitement that comes from breaking stories.

News organizations should be offering chronologies of content as well as the traditional, editorially-weighted mix of material.

And the paid-for SMS news alert should be sent to the dustbin of history. At upwards of 12-25p a message it works out as the most expensive bandwidth in the world, especially if you measure it against the amount of data transmitted.

Yet organisations still pump out alerts, many of questionable value, in the knowledge that companies rather than individuals are footing the bill.

If you’ve already paid for “unlimited” bandwidth, or bandwidth capped at “fair use” levels, why on earth would you pay for SMS alerts?

Push notifications do, at least, take cost out of the equation but they need to be used sparingly or the news currency becomes devalued.

And if you have several apps offering push alerts then the distraction can quickly become annoying, especially when they aren’t deemed relevant or important enough to warrant the interruption.

It’s why I believe news organizations need to incorporate time-driven hierarchies into the mainstream of their platforms and make much more of immediacy.

That doesn’t mean throwing away the traditional, editorially-weighted view of the news – that still has value – but it does mean presenting content in a new way that makes a virtue of “nowness” and conveys information in snackable bursts.

Twitter’s already shown itself to be a powerful force for breaking news with its 140-character snippets rewarding repeat visits – there’s always something new to consume – and rapid updates  are a key strength of mobile.

But presenting only one that type of view means important news can swiftly be displaced by less substantial matter.

It’s not a case of speed over importance, one or the other, mobile can and should do both.

posterTake a group of everyday individuals who sing for pleasure, throw in some brilliant professional muscians, add a sprinkle of magic from a multi-talented American living in London and you have a wonderful choir called Eclectic Voices.

Last night I heard them perform at St Paul’s, Covent Garden, also known as the actors’ church because many famous stars either worshipped there, are buried there, or remembered there, and I was blown away.

Under the guidance of director Scott Stroman they have been moulded into an accomplished and versatile group with a repertoire that is as broad as their leader’s vibrant personality.

Using hand signals much like a platoon leader silently directing his soldiers,  Stroman played them like an instrument – now louder, now softer, repeating a phrase, or  bringing out individual voices and sections and then blending them back into the whole.

The programme included Britten’s Ceremony of Carols,  Bach’s Gloria,  a dash of jazz, and more carols including Mary’s Boy Child and Joy to the World, the last two requiring audience participation.

Sad to say, I think we were a long way short of the lusty, full-throated singing the occasion deserved.

Maybe we were collectively being polite to each other (not wanting to spoil the moment with our tuneless growling) but on a night like this no-one would have minded.

Singing for joy – not in the bath or the shower or the car – but in public with one other is so uplifting.

It’s something we’ve lost somewhere along the way in a world of always available, instant on, portable music.

We need to get back to it.

A content treatment that caught my eye recently was the website What happened in my birth year – a mash-up from Phillipp Lenssen using Wikipedia and other sources and assembled under Creative Commons licences.

Dipping into news events and populist culture ranging across music, film and TV – albeit with an American skew – it tickers through some of the key events in an individual’s lifetime.

The ticker roll-rate is annoyingly slow, but you get the idea.

The BBC has the history of Britain on its shelves – probably one of the world’s greatest audio and video collections – which needs Government money or a Bill Gates/ Paul Allen act of philanthropy to unlock.

Tens of thousands of hours of tape need to be digitised, classified, metatagged and mapped, a task so huge it’s beyond the capabilities of the BBC alone.

For historians and educators it’s a priceless resource and it properly belongs in the public domain.  If the rights issues can be resolved – and that’s far from trivial – the value to us all is inestimable.

Some pieces have been cleared and you can see them here

restaurant star ratings

There’s gold in data and a rich news vein to be mined around public health issues. As life increasingly migrates to mobile, the value of location-based services allied to instant, up-to-date information will only grow in importance.

Imagine being able to see at a glance the environmental health findings for a local restaurant, or takeaway, or gastro pub by simply pointing your mobile at it. Well, there’s already an app for that, called Scores on the Doors, which professes to be the UK’s largest source for official food hygiene scores.

You can take advantage of your smartphone’s location and compass capability to see star ratings of local premises as well as a key to the criteria of the health inspection. There are also SMS and WAP versions and the scheme has actually been running on the web for more than a couple of years, gaining momentum as more and more town halls sign up. As I write there are 124 contributing councils and almost 150,000 listed premises.

The app and site make use of local authority data gathered by environmental health inspectors as part of their statutory obligation to visit food businesses.

The frequency of future inspections depends on the risk rating of the premises after a visit, with the dual aim of improving standards while helping consumers make informed choices.

Where it falls down is both in the level of detail disclosed and the overall frequency of environmental health checks. There’s surely a story to be written about the mismatch in the number of health inspectors required to get round hundreds, if not thousands of outlets.

As the site points out, premises may only be inspected every 6-36 months as per the Food Standards Agency Code of Practice.

And because the results are a snapshot of a single day: “The score may not be representative of the overall, long-term food hygiene standards of the business and should not be relied upon as a guide to food safety or food quality.”

There are two sides to that coin as top chef Paul Rankin will testify.

In the US, Seattle and King County Public Health give a lot more detail about what their inspectors find:

“Food contact surfaces not maintained, clean, sanitized”
“Inadequate hand washing facilities”
Raw meats, poultry, aquatic foods not stored away from ready-to-eat foods”

It’s also possible to look over the record of an outlet across a number of years to see if there are repeated transgressions that might give pause for thought.

As impulse gives way to information and people start to vote with their feet we’ll either see a rise in food hygiene standards, or demands for more frequent inspections, or both. And at hyperlocal level that’s the kind of news that really matters.

Actress

Have you tried Google Goggles yet? It’s a picture-based way of searching for information with a smartphone. Point your mobile at a building and if a recognition scan matches what’s in its database it’ll instantly provide you with supplementary information.

When I took a snap of a book cover that showed a building, Goggles was instantly able to tell me it was the Metropolis in Madrid, offered me a map, a Wikipedia entry, links to Flickr pictures, and travel sites.

Last night I was playing with an app called Hope Poster (after the Obama screenprint-style image) using a painting of actress Katharine Hepburn.

The original is in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC along with some of her Oscars.

Using Goggles on this image instantly revealed the name of the artist – Everett Raymond Kinstler – links to his wider work, collections at the gallery and more.

It’s not perfect. Results can be very hit and miss. Aim your lens at a tree and Goggles can’t tell you whether it’s an oak or an elm.

Not yet, anyway.

But it’s fun to try and it gets smarter every day.

Another day…another attempt by a newspaper to reinvent itself.

This time it’s Swedish media group Bonnier, trying to imagine what a newspaper would be like if it had been invented in the age of tablets.

It’s all too easy to scoff and say it wouldn’t be a newspaper.

But for an industry transitioning from a rock to a hard place, holding on to familiarity is important.

You don’t want to scare off the existing readership while trying to woo a new audience. And you don’t want to cannibalize revenue by gaining in one platform at the expense of the other.

But I can’t help thinking that it’s the attachment to the past that is holding back the truly innovative approaches to future news delivery.

Perhaps that’s why all the major innovations we’ve seen in the past few years have been developed outside traditional journalism organisations.

Digital is laying waste to traditional forms of consumption, to business models and to ways of thinking.

Starting with a clean slate is what’s called for, not imitations of products made for a different age.

Industrialist Henry Ford understood this at an instinctive level and encapsulated it in a quote about the Model T: “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.”

This isn’t meant to undermine attempts to understand a market, or to place future development in the sway of intuition or gut instinct.

But it does illustrate that there’s a gap between what the market provides, and is measurable, and what is wanted, though not voiced, at an aspirational level.

Why does any of this matter? How is it relevant to an organisation like the BBC that is still primarily a broadcast organisation?

It matters because the world of broadcasting will soon be feeling the same chill winds.

It won’t be long before broadcasters are, like newspaper and magazine publishers, desperately seeking solutions to the disruption that iPTV sets in train.

Up until now broadcast channels have been like libraries full of best sellers.

We’re now entering a world where there’s going to be an explosion of choice, of narrowcasting, of social interaction, and where search terms themselves become channels.

We’ve had that on the web for some time now of course, the difference here is that the content will be coming to you through the primary screen in the home – the one that still occupies more eyeballs, for more time, than any other – the television

I’ve written before about YouTube Leanback, Google TV and Apple TV and the challenges they pose to traditional broadcasters.

But they bring rich opportunities too and bear the potential to reinvent the viewing experience.

Earlier this week Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg told a web gathering in San Francisco that he tried every day to reinforce two core values in the company:

“Move fast and be bold”.

He predicted that in the next five years most companies would be rethought and designed around people.

“Some aren’t going to make it. But over the next five years, everyone’s going to have to think about this.”

Bonnier’s attempt to rethink its business and to reinvent the newspaper look tame, rather than bold, to my eye.

I hope the BBC will be bold as it grapples with the disruption and opportunity that iPTV will offer.