Robo-Collie, it’ll never work…or will it?

The news has recently been bleeting on about some scientific work done by Swansea University, suggesting that robots could replace sheepdogs to herd sheep. Of course this isn’t exactly what Swansea are suggesting, but just for a moment let us address this. The researchers have used GPS data to show how mathematically the sheepdog and the shepherd work together to herd a whole group of sheep successfully. Their conclusion is that there are two simple rules to it and that is that. But the main problem with this conclusion, as accurate as it may be, is that it is based on watching successful herding and not on watching how that successful herding was actually accomplished.

Having grown up around farms, I am quite aware of the tremendous skill and determination required to run a farm. Watching a sheepdog working, changing direction on a sixpence simply on a whistle command, is quite awe inspiring, especially when the effect of this on a sheep herd is instantaneous as well. This duet, or in some cases trio (with two dogs), work in perfect harmony to coerce a group of herd animals into a pen only just big enough to hold them. But the thing that comes across when watching this wonderful spectacle is not the mathematics of the movements, it is the skill of the animals and owner at reading the herd, in being agile and able to react on a moment to control what could otherwise result in a breakout.

Watching on from a mathematical point of view, it is no doubt possible to define the rules that were applied to make this well oiled machine work. But that is no more useful than defining how a stream may, over thousands of years, cut a course through  valley, only to be wrong because you didn’t realise there was a weakness in a line of rock half way down and this caused a completely different route. You see, by nature, sheep are unpredictable and so the dog and farmer control this through their experience and ability to judge and read the herd, rather than by just applying a rule and knowing it will work every time.

Now, the research is not actually denying this. What they have done is to use the rules observed from herding to suggest that robots could be used in other situations where here are large groups of people involved; crowd control or oil spills are the examples in the article. And this idea is actually very fascinating.

The Internet of Everything is the idea that any system will be ‘on the net’ and therefore measurable. The principle is that we not only collect the data from ‘everything’ but we also then interpret and react to it. This is an example of that. Scientists are looking at how one group, in this case a herd of sheep, react to herding and then applying this to another situation where a group may need to be herded in a similar way.

Of course the news reporters translate this into a small scale example, the person stuck in a dark room who can then be saved by a robot guide. That is small fry. So let’s extrapolate this into something rather more relevant.

Over the last couple of weeks the great British countryside has pretty much ground to a halt as millions of holiday-goers edge their way down the motorway to try and gain themselves their four inch plot of seaside heaven. The weight of traffic on one or two arterial roads is simply too much and so it takes eight hours to make a journey that on any other day might take half that. In the Internet of Everything world the cars will be herded, in real time, down the most suitable roads. They can be assigned a route based on availability, weight of traffic, capacity of the road, destination of other cars vs their car, the need to stop for food, water, a wee. All of these variables will be calculated by the vehicle, which will most likely to be doing all the driving anyway, and the roads will stay moving.

This is where the world is heading. Whether it be large groups all going to the same destination, or individuals trying to get somewhere whilst avoiding the crowd, it will be possible to use live data and mathematically rules to shepherd them in the most optimal routes. And that will be the power of big data as well. Take another salient example, the spread of the Ebola virus in Africa. Using data obtained using non-invasive medical devices, a patient will be able to be diagnosed in minutes, their presence will then be known ‘on the net’ and quarantine protocols updated accordingly. The ability to track the movement of the disease and then apply the rules we already know work will be much improved.

The power of data is impressive, and it will continue to impress us even more as we realise the potential for it’s use in the future. But an important part of using data is interpreting it in the right ways. The application of ‘intelligence’ to data, and not just generalising that one plus one must always equal two, will be how the Internet of Everything changes the world. Because the reality is that one plus one does not always equal two, sometimes it makes a window too!

Who is Richard Brady?

We are all familiar with the scam emails from Nigerian Prince’s needing bank accounts to transfer their millions into, or lost friends stuck abroad and in desperate need of some cash. It has become part of the British comedy culture, it is in fact somewhat a cliche now. I actually find myself reading some of these and getting quite a lot of enjoyment out of them. After all, you would have to be borderline amoebic to be taken in by these, quite frankly more ludicrous than fiction, yarns.

The traditional way of receiving these has been by email and this has been happening for many many years. In more recent times similar SMS schemes have popped up; the “You’re entitled to compensation for your recent accident” one has probably been received by tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people. If that many accidents had actually occurred then the country would just be one big pile of wrecked cars!

Somewhat inevitably I suppose, this scam mentality has started to invade social media. The US based MTV show ‘Catfish’ features the more personal scams, where people mislead others by pretending to be someone they are not, for various personal motivations. On Twitter it is also not uncommon to start being followed by fake profiles, who then post ads to you. But one network that until recently seemed relatively safe from this is the business network LinkedIn. Which leads me to ask the question “Who is Richard Brady?”

LinkedInFraud

When I received a connection request from Richard Brady, who apparently works for Orabank (who have a website – I did a quick check), I immediately thought this seems a bit fishy, but thought I would let it play out. So having done some quick looking around to check Orabank did, on the face of it, seem vaguely real and having checked Richard Brady’s profile to see it had a plausible background, I accepted the request. After all, in my line of work you don’t turn down a connection as it may lead to a project.

Of course, and predictably, Richard Brady’s sickeningly goofy face popped into my LinkedIn inbox within 24 hours, accompanied by the above message. Now this does make a good read. It is a story of a deceit, larceny, conspiracy to defraud a presumably grieving family, money laundering and cover ups. Mr Richard Brady of Orabank does seem to be quite the operator. Is he friends with James Bond or Jack Bauer as well? Are they chasing him?

So what does this actually mean? Well for a start it means that these fraudsters are invading networking and social media sites, and not just the Facebooks and Twitters of the world, the professional sites like LinkedIn as well. Secondly, it means that someone must be falling for these scams, otherwise they wouldn’t do it. So who is that stupid and using LinkedIn? I certainly don’t want to connect with them. Thirdly, and possibly the most concerning thing, is that this profile, claiming to be a presumably fictitious ‘Richard Brady’ is using someone’s photograph to accompany an openly illegal activity.

And at the end of the day that is the most concerning thing here surely? These stories are laughable at best. They are barely worthy of a TV sitcom script, and yet someone somewhere is taking the time to construct these elaborate hoaxes, piecing together profiles with real photographs of goodness knows who. At the end of the day this photograph of Richard Brady may go viral, as ‘the face of the fraudster’. But somewhere a real person has that face, and that person is probably not Richard Brady the man of mystery, intrigue and larceny. Let’s hope the family of Mr Philip Becks (deceased – may god rest his soul) don’t go searching for him!

The real lesson here is that if you put yourself online then there is every possibility that your details and photos may well be used by someone else in their deceptions. Coming back to Catfish, the US show, people are doing this more and more, just so they can have a barrier of protection and anonymity when engaging online. And in practically every case they are using other people’s photographs, stolen from profiles online. This is the risk of putting yourself online. Do you ever really know who you are talking to unless you actually see them? We should all ask ourselves ‘is this person really who they say they are?’ … or in other words, ‘Who is Richard Brady?’

From Russia, with data…

Recently (Source: BBC News) it was reported that Russia are seeking to pass new laws requiring data about Russian citizens to be stored within the country, rather than in datacentres in the United States “where it can be hacked and given to criminals” (quoting MP Vadim Dengin).

At first glance this seems to be a relatively ridiculous stance to take, flimsily disguised as an attempt to protect the data of Russian citizens when actually many skeptics believe this is more about control which could lead to Russia becoming the next country with an iron-curtain firewall – much like China has operated for years. A key question is how will they enforce this in any way that would benefit Russian people?

Irrelevant of the motivations behind this move, there are potential implications for digital practitioners that need to be thought about going forward. For a start, if there is any possibility that a Russian is going to use your application and requires storing any data then that database will need to be stored in Russia. A shrewd move if Russia plans on creating datacentres, but from a practical point of view would the rest of the world want their data stored in Russia?

One option would be to develop the system so that anyone based in Russia has their data stored in a Russian version of the database. But let’s be honest, it isn’t really practical to go down this route. Where does it end? Do you have a database for each country that requires one?

At the other end of the spectrum is the consideration that you have to rule Russian customers out of your experience if they have to do any sort of account creation. For some sectors that may not be a concern. The Google’s, YouTube’s and Amazon’s of the world may decide this is a risk worth taking. But what about the investment sector, for example? Russia has a lot of wealth and ruling them out could be a big problem. Similarly, research becomes a lot more difficult. For an entity trying to undertake surveys Russia may be a key demographic but this may well rule them out of being included.

What is the reality? We think that this is likely to be a very hard thing for Russia to police and most likely they really are only targeting big companies. The only real way to enforce this is that Russian internet access becomes locked down in a utilitarian move to “protect data”, but which would actually be severely curtailing Russian freedoms online. If this is the case then any company serious about having a presence online in Russia would have to have a Russian version specifically for the purpose. Instead, what will most likely happen is that businesses will turn their backs on Russia and so we won’t need to worry anyway.

Internet World 2014 – An agency owners viewpoint

(As featured at http://www.sitesetdigital.co.uk/tabletsilversurfers.html)

I recently attended the Internet World expo at The Excel Centre in London. This was a return visit for me but the first time I have attended as the Managing Director of an agency, so my aims for the day had somewhat changed. Previously, I had found the expo to be a very useful yardstick for what is important in the Digital sector and what the current trends of focus are for both clients and agencies. It has also been very useful to look at what other companies are developing in terms of products and to align these with our own efforts. Most importantly, in the past as a project manager it has allowed me to see what is at the cutting edge so that I can offer consultancy to clients about what they might want to consider for their own strategies.

This year I had new questions to answer, primarily would Internet World be a good platform for us to showcase our agency and our new CMS product. Additionally I wanted to look at what the key development trends are in similar technologies to our own, to make sure we are competitive and focussing in the right areas.

In my previous visits to Internet World I had found a good balance between information and sales opportunities, with a wide variety of providers to talk with, product demonstrations to view and seminar talks to attend. Overriding all of this, previously there seems to have been an overriding focus each year that brings the whole show together, with exhibitors complimenting this and seminar talks designed to further develop on this theme.

Attending this year with my new MD tinted glasses on was a very interesting experience. In looking to answer my key questions I first started by browsing the exhibitors. The first thing I noticed was there seemed to be fewer than last year, but the other thing I noticed was that quite a few of the comparable agencies to Siteset that I’d seen the previous year were absent this time around. This could be for a number of reasons, but one reading of this is that Internet World did not serve them well in terms of new business leads.

Looking to the product side of the fence, there were the usual big names this year. Sitecore were present, although notably with a more modest stand than they had last year. In fact in general the larger players seemed to be more confined, whereas last year a number of the stands were a feature in themselves. This could have been due to the more confined space of this year’s expo.

In terms of CMS products (one of the products our agency offer), there were really only three present on the day; Sitecore, Kentico and Cantarus (although other proprietary offerings were also there). Last year there were many other CMS products of varying scales on show, and I again noticed a lack of PHP technology in this area. Much like the failure of some agencies to have a return visit, it seems that perhaps this is not the right forum for emerging products to try and gain a foothold.

A new thing Internet World has worked on is the networking areas and this year this included a pitch area. Whilst this was an interesting listen, I think I got unlucky though in that I seemed to always be there when the people talking hadn’t rehearsed beforehand. Similarly The Marketplace had a pitch session, but the area was monopolised by people who wanted to use the beanbags as a place to catch up on emails rather than actually listening to the speakers and so the focus was rather lost.

So what about this year’s seminar talks? This is one of the key ways for attendees to pick up on the latest trends and see what is happening at the cutting edge. In the past I have found this is a really good way to see what other agencies are doing with their clients and products. Citrix was no exception, talking about their work towards the Internet of Everything. Whilst not particularly accessible to smaller agencies like ourselves it was fascinating to see what the future will hold and start to think about how we might generate ideas for products that will fit within that. It was a real example of work right on the fringe. But this year it seemed like this was a bit of an exception to an otherwise rather tame rule. A lot of the talks seemed to be very marketing based, particularly those by agencies, where most of the seminar was dedicated to selling their services rather than actually focussing on the work. This was, in large part, a contributor to a day that seemed to lack the seamless thread pulling the whole show together that previous years have had.

I realise that there is an element of the hypocritical about the way I am assessing the show this year. On one front I am asking whether an agency could go there and generate leads but on the other front I am criticising it when agencies do that very thing in seminars. But that is one of the fine lines that Internet World needs to draw and that some seminars achieve very well. Seminars provide a good insight into the work, which then subtly promote the agency behind it. But when the talk itself becomes about promoting the agency then all else is lost. It was notable how few questions were asked at the end of each talk, possibly a reflection on people being less than keen to be sold to, or perhaps even having lost interest.

So did I answer my questions? If I’d asked those questions at last year’s show I would have come away clearly thinking that this year we should have been there ourselves, showcasing our work and our product. But this year the focus had shifted. The smaller product owners were not there and the talks were not at all focussed on quality content. Instead the seminars featured people both trying and failing to sell their brand or talking about topics that were not particularly new, unless they were so far ahead of the game that for most it was just an interesting look into the future.

My questions remain somewhat unanswered at this point, but I am no longer convinced that Internet World is the place to learn about the latest tech and approaches. I’m certainly not convinced that it is a good platform for an agency to generate leads.

Tablet adoption and Silver Surfers…

(As featured at http://www.sitesetdigital.co.uk/tabletsilversurfers.html)

In a previous blog post we looked at how Millenials, those between the ages of 16 and 24, are accessing the internet more and more through their phones. It is now the case that mobile internet access (although not browsing) has surpassed desktop (Source: Mequoda.com), and from the data we featured in our previous blog it is clear that this is being driven by the Millenial and Young-Adult (25-34) groups. The latest data shows that internet usage through apps is growing, with tablet and phone browsing staying strong as well. But is this also a generational thing or is it across the board?

Age Group Browsing

At the opposite end of the spectrum to Millenials are the 55+ group, affectionately referred to as the ‘Silver Surfers’ (shown in the bottom left quadrant in the above infographic). This group is generally the most affluent of the four groups, with plenty of disposable income. They are also less time poor and despite being more well off are often more reluctant to spend their money.

Something that is immediately obvious in this age band is that the vast majority of internet access takes place via desktop or laptop (80%). Not unsurprisingly the level of smartphone access is very low as well (4%), but tablet usage (13%) is an emerging trend in this age group. In Q1 of 2012 only 4% of the Silver Surfer group reported that their household owned a tablet device (Source: Ofcom) compared to 19% by Q4 of 2013(Source: Ofcom). Even more significantly, of this 19% of Silver Surfers who own a tablet, 71% said they personally used the device.

There is a clear trend developing towards the adoption of tablets in the older generations and this may well become the mobile device of choice in this group. Intuitive interfaces and larger screens mean that it is a more comfortable experience, whilst the cost barrier is less of a deterrent for this more affluent group as well. Most importantly, they don’t feel the need to be online all the time whilst on the move, unlike the Millenials.

So what does this mean for Digital practitioners? Firstly there is an emerging and affluent group who are adopting tablet devices (and possibly in time smartphones with larger screens) to access the internet. Secondly, this is a group who are methodical, cautious and time rich. Thirdly, and most importantly, they are a group who have different needs and interests to younger generations, with expectations to match.

In planning for the mobile internet and the internet of things, this generation is going to play an interesting and more significant role over time. Responsive experiences are going to become as important in mobile as responsive design already is. Designing for this age group will be a different process to designing for Millenials. Similarly, there is a whole raft of apps that this age group would adopt that simply aren’t relevant to younger generations. This is only further supported by the release of health related hardware and a Silver Surfer generation who are more health conscious.

 

IE – that is, the bane of our lives!

One of the obstacles to progress in digital is the limitations placed upon us by the tools available to users – the browsers and devices. In a perfect world all devices and browsers would use the same code base. We could write some code and we would know that every device and browser would treat it in exactly the same way. But of course we don’t live in a perfect world, instead each developer of a browser or device treats code slightly differently and this adds overheads to projects because we then have to text against each of these. This is why standards like HTML5 and CSS3 are introduced, they are supported across the board (by all the major browsers). But the other problem we have is with legacy versions of browsers. Unfortunately older versions of browsers don’t support newer versions of code, which leaves us with two choices when developing new things:

  1. Use older technologies which limit creativity and make it harder to achieve a good result
  2. Build something that has a ‘graceful fallback’ for browsers that are older

The problem with the above is you have to make a compromise either way, option 1 limits the experience and option 2 adds budget and testing. Of course the 3rd option is to ignore older browsers…which may or may not be at your own peril.

So the online world is frustrating for developers, to say the least. But one particular browser has traditionally caused a lot more problems…and for each generation there is a new version to cause issues. Of course I speak of Internet Explorer, a browser that has become synonymous with cursing developers and irritated clients, inflated budgets and frustrating user experiences. When I first started out in digital the real problem was IE6, which at the time was still used by a lot of bigger organisations despite the fact IE8 was out. Thankfully this relic browser was retired a few years ago but with the emergence of HTML5 and CSS3 IE7 then became the new 6.

We are currently in the throes of developing a new CMS system, which utilizes a lot of the real time JavaScript technology AJAX. This has not only presented us with lots of problems in IE8, but also in the latest versions as well. We are in the position where we have to test the system in Firefox, Chrome and Safari once and then basically rebuild the code just so that IE will use the technology in the same way. Frustrating doesn’t cover it!

A couple of years ago an Australian shopping site got so fed up with the overheads imposed by Microsoft’s browser that they decided to impose a tax on users of the older IE7 browser unless they switched to another browser. Obviously Microsoft weren’t impressed, but maybe they should have taken note of the reasons behind the move.

One of the reasons this has occurred is no doubt that for years Microsoft had an unchallenged share in the market. Pretty much every PC in the world came with Windows and IE installed and for the most part people didn’t know there were alternatives. For Microsoft’s part, they have time and time again chosen to interpret the standards differently to the other browsers, causing issues for developers and bad experiences for users. An example is their interpretation of multiple file uploads. Most browsers would allow you to hold down Ctrl and multi-select files by clicking on them. Microsoft decided, in their infinite wisdom, that in IE you would have to select a file, add it to the queue, then go back and browser for another file, add it, and so on. A ridiculous experience.

Microsoft’s perceived arrogance in this area is being tested now. They continue to make the same mistakes and cause the same problems as they always have done, but they are being forced to change. One of the reasons for this is that IE no longer has a vast majority stake in the browsing market. Gone are the days of dominance, now Firefox and Chrome has made massive advances and on MAC no one would contemplate using IE anyway…lest their MAC would literally shut itself down out of embarrassment. The other reason is that users are becoming more savvy. Users realise that IE isn’t a very good experience when compared to other browsers and so make a choice not to use them. Of course, the growth in the use of devices that don’t have IE as their browser has also helped here. Hopefully Microsoft will take further note and try to converge rather than diverge and let us develop better experiences more easily and cheaply than they currently do.

But a word of warning to finish with. For years Microsoft created a rod for it own back by choosing not to go with the flow and insist on their own proprietary way of doing things. Sound familiar Apple? Already in development we are seeing issues arising that are not seen in other browsers. For example, the way Safari deals with PDF downloads can cause issues without the right plugins. Apple only accept their own formats of certain file types as well. And of course, they are renowned as a company a company that rejects all other tech except their own.

Of course it is unlikely their will ever been a completely unified approach to code and with more and more devices being used this is only going to get worse. Luckily they mostly stick to the standards, but there will always be problems that we need to solve as developers and that is why the job isn’t easy!

Shooting the messenger – a right to forget the point!

An EU court has today backed the right for people to request that Google must amend some search results, in what is becoming known as the “right to be forgotten”. This story, reported on the BBC News website, raises some interesting questions and also possible paves the way for a world wide web police, for which Google must logically be placed.

But first lets look at the court case, which presents a few problems and, much like the “cookie law”, has got quite a few people excited despite having hold of the wrong end of a very large stick. For one, the EU Justice Commissioner, Viviane Reding, said in a post on Facebook that it is a “clear victory for the protection of personal data of Europeans”. I can’t help but feel she has massively missed the point here. Google themselves make the salient point; They do not control data, they only offer links to information freely available on the internet.

What Viviane is failing to see is that this ruling doesn’t solve any problem at all. If people want misleading, inaccurate or otherwise unfair information about themselves to be removed from the internet then asking Google to remove it from search results doesn’t remove it from the internet, it merely stops it being shown in Google. The information itself is still out there as a source for people to find. And you might argue that if it isn’t shown in the most popular search engine (and indeed website) in the world then that solves the problem, but if you believe that you’re probably a bit short sighted. Why? Well quite simply because the online world is changing.

An example of this change is this article, which talks about how the younger generation are consuming the internet through apps rather than browsers. This is significant because the web is moving towards an information warehouse rather than website based approach, where your app of choice will be used to retrieve this information. If this is indeed where the net ends up then Google will no longer be the majority search engine, and therefore the information that Google has obediently hidden will be found again. Not to mention that if the actual content is not removed, it only takes a couple of people to find it and share it and then it is all over the net.

So, what is this ruling actually doing? Well it is shooting the messenger for the ‘crimes’ of others. Google is suffering from being the biggest name in the web. It suits the cause of the advocates, politicians and legal personnel to aim the gun directly at a big name rather than this court case disappearing into obscurity once the actual offending website is dealt with. More to the point, like the cookie law, it will get a lot of normal people who don’t 100% understand how the web actually works riled up and support some piece of law being passed that doesn’t actually solve the problem, just covers it with a plaster for a while.

But there is something else going on here as well, something which many people have seen coming for a while. In placing the responsibility with Google (and presumably other search engines, although none have currently been mentioned) to manage and control this content they have now effectively asked them to start policing the internet. As there are vagaries around exactly when a person can validly ask for content to be removed, there will need to be someone making judgements on what is and isn’t allowed and Google are best placed to do this. They have the biggest reach, the widest data access and the best understanding of content monitoring and assessment. Another perceived advantage is that Google are agnostic of governments and institutions, meaning they are well placed to make impartial judgements (in theory).

Whether or not Google does end up being this web police or not, this court case is a line in the sand. To date the internet is largely uncontrolled and almost anything can be uploaded. But this court case has moved a step closer to a situation where either proactively or retrospectively content is going to be monitored and potentially restricted or even removed. The age of the free internet, the ultimate safe harbour of freedom of speech, may well be coming to an end. Whether this is a good or bad thing however, is a whole different question.

In the meantime, if you see something about yourself online that you don’t think should be there, don’t ask Google to remove it, ask the actual website. That will be much more effective in actually removing the content.