Why do we Do?

Recently I posted a link to an article about what might be the world’s next tallest building (as at 2014, anyway). A friend responded to my post asking “Isn’t the question why?”

It’s a fair question but one I have never asked myself. It’s always seemed to me an intrinsic part of the human condition that we should strive to improve and push the boundaries of science, engineering and technology – preferably for good not ill. I have always felt a close affiliation to that need to go beyond what is possible today and create something awesome, even if I’m not gifted with the intellect or skills myself to be the one building those modern marvels.

A poster for the 1958 film adaptation of Jules Vernes book From the Earth to the Moon (French: De la terre à la lune) written in 1865, 101 years before the first men landed on the moon.

A poster for the 1958 film adaptation of Jules Vernes book From the Earth to the Moon (French: De la terre à la lune) written in 1865, 101 years before the first men landed on the moon.

I have been driven to affect change in my own small way, running my technology startups (largely in the consumer and mobile space) and trying to create the next big thing, even if I did after many years fail in my attempt to create a Facebook-esque location based mobile social network back in 2001!

Curiosity and exploration of our own capabilities to create and engineer are crucial to the human spirit. Modern marvels from the first horseless carriage to putting a man in outer space have inspired children to learn, to thrive. It’s closely connected with and fed by, our ability to imagine beyond what we know mankind can achieve today.

At a practical level, technologies often have secondary applications in more down to earth ways.

Finally, personally I believe we should do it because, as unique animals on this planet and in this solar system, we can.

What will you do today to go the extra mile and change the world (even if only in a small way)?

* and I mean that in the correct use of the word, to create something awe inspiring

Why The 350 Dead Bangladeshi’s Are Our Fault

Ever shopped at Primark or any of the other 100’s of clothing stores who turn a blind eye to their supply chain?

How's that cheap t-shirt you're wearing feeling today?

How’s that cheap t-shirt you’re wearing feeling today?

The terrible irony of Primark (which is often the target of choice by campaigners against cheap labour etc)  is that it’s actually owned by Associated British Foods plc, which is a conglomerate which is 54% owned by a not-for-profit trust which does a lot for charity in the UK. I know this because on my way to Sweden last week I sat next to the Marketing Director (of ABF, not Primark) who explained this. According to omnipresent Wikipedia:

“Some 54.5% of ABF is owned by Wittington Investments.[17] and 79.2% of the share capital of Wittington Investments is owned by the Garfield Weston Foundation, which is one of the UK largest grant-making charitable trusts, and the remainder is owned by members of the Weston family.”

Garfield Weston are a family-founded, grant-making trust which has been supporting charities across the UK for over 50 years (check out their good work here) but lets get back to clothing and 400 dead Bangladeshi’s

Your leverage to affect change is directly related your choice to buy from a retailer who guarantees supply chain good standards and ethics, or not.

Your leverage to affect change is directly related your choice to buy from a retailer who guarantees supply chain good standards and ethics, or not.

Specifically Primark, with revenues of £2,730 million and 36,000 employees, itself has the resources if it so wishes to ensure it’s entire supply chain adheres to certain standards. The market (in this case the supply chain itself) would accordingly respond if this is what was demanded of it by the buyers (e.g. Primark).

The future is in your hands

So, the fix, is actually really rather straightforward. All that is needed is the impetus – best demonstrated by our own purchase choices along with -ideally- a PR outcry, in the same way that most people don’t want horse meat in their burgers from some far flung country, resold and transported half way across Europe.

So friends, the power to prevent another 350+ dead clothing workers really is in your hands; or at the very least, the catalyst for change resides in your wallet/purse.

UPDATE: Primark (and some other companies) have offered compensation to the victims (BBC News link)

What happens when you complain to TFL about London Bus drivers?

..in short, the answer is a belated but appreciated personal reply, but tangibly, precious little.

Many London bus drivers, employed by private companies operating in conjunction with TFL, are at best aloof and at worst down right rude.

Many London bus drivers, employed by private companies operating in conjunction with TFL, are at best aloof and at worst down right rude.

Credit to this article on public transport customer service, for the photo>

My main complaints were:

  • That I had a specific bad experience with a bus driver
  • That this is not unique
  • That many people I know (including other bus drivers I have spoken to) AGREE that rude, uncommunicative, unfriendly bus drivers are endemic in the industry

My complaint, and subsequent reply, are published below in full, for those who care.

My email sent on the 3rd December 2012:

Sent: 03.12.12 12:10:19
Subject: Formal Complaint

Dear Sir / Madam

Bus REF: DLA20S,
Registration: W404VGJ,
Route: 243 from Waterloo, @ 10:47 am on Monday 3rd December 2012

Can someone explain to me why TFL find it acceptable that on repeated occasions your bus drivers are permitted, seemingly encouraged, to treat passengers with such contempt?

The bus reference and time above refers to just one occasion where, after I ran to the bus stop and bus door, the driver closes the doors as I arrive, sees me, looks at me, and despite it being obvious I wish to board chooses instead to drive off.

There was no traffic which caused his need to depart so speedily as Waterloo bus station is not on the highway.

The hall mark of a successful business in this day and age is good customer service. While a minority of bus drivers still seem to embody this (and what I would hope remains a British tradition of politeness and good will) a vast majority do not.

I have too often experienced an arrogance from drivers, or at best ambivalence. Aside from driving off, many:

– Don’t respond when said “good morning” to or “good afternoon”
– Some accents are so thick that if they do reply they either mutter or sometimes one can’t understand their response
– Some don’t speak or respond when asked questions, at all!

I’m paying for a service and they are being paid by the custom I provide. Moreover, they are representing my (and presumably their) country and London, to everyone single passenger that boards a London bus.

I’m fed up with feeling like an unwelcome guest aboard my own bus service.

In summary then I would like a proper response (and action taken) around two points:

1) Regarding my specific experience:-

A) why the driver felt it appropriate to drive off

B) what has been done to ensure he pays more care and attention in future

2) In general why so many TFL bus drivers:-

A) seem to feel empowered not to put the passenger first

B) are rude, unresponsive and uncommunicative (if you don’t want to speak to the general public all day, don’t be a bus driver)

C) ..and what is going to change in TFL’s training and employment policies to ensure the points A/B change to substantially improve the customer service and friendliness of London bus drivers, to have an impact on tens of thousands of peoples lives every day who use London buses.

Perhaps TFL’s senior leadership can view it as a revolutionary new approach to their people, to go along with their revolutionary (and very good) new London busses.

Yours sincerely,

Andrew Scott

NB: To ensure a considered response from you, this letter will be published on line, on my personal blog, to my 3,600 twitter followers, publicly on Facebook, and sent to the Evening Standard newspaper.

The reply I received, 23 days later:

Our Ref:         1011585328/ABB

Date:              27.12.2012

 Dear Mr Scott

 Thank you for your message. I was very sorry to hear that a bus driver on route 243 (registration W404VGJ) did not allow you to board his bus when departing from Waterloo on the morning of 3 December 2012.

 Arriva London, who operate route 243 on behalf of Transport for London (TfL) have asked me to pass on their apologies to you. The driver could have allowed you to board and the incident is being followed up with the aim of minimising the possibility of similar errors on his part in the future.

 I am also sorry to hear of your many experiences when bus drivers in London have not exhibited the expected level of customer service. Transport for London (TfL) certainly does not encourage the sort the sort of behaviour you described and we engage with the private bus operating companies, who employ the bus drivers and manage the day-to-day running of the routes, to ensure that standards are as high as possible.

 All bus drivers in London are formally assessed by a Driving Standards Agency (DSA) Approved Assessor and must pass an additional test for Passenger Carrying Vehicle’s (PCV) as assessed by the DSA (which includes a focus on customer service). In addition, we work very closely with all our bus operators to improve the quality of our services, highlighting the need for attention to proper standards of service and driver conduct. We also strongly emphasise staff training and liaise with all bus companies to ensure we continue to achieve improvements across London. Whenever we receive complaints about poor standards, we follow them up with the bus company concerned. Assuming the complaint is upheld and it is not of a nature that could lead to dismal or suspension, the driver will undertake a variety of follow-up actions aimed at improving their standard of service.

 We would hope that the majority of bus drivers are not rude, unresponsive or uncommunicative and that they do try to the put their passengers first. The evidence we collect from our various monitoring exercises suggest that most of London’s 21,500 bus drivers carry out their jobs in the manner expected of them and customers find many to be helpful and professional in general. It is regrettable that isolated drivers cause this perception to be called into disrepute. Therefore we greatly appreciate you highlighting this incident to us, as it allows the bus operator to take action aimed at continuing to improve the level of service provided to our customers.

Once again, please accept our apologies for the delay and upset caused by the driver’s behaviour on 3 December. Thank you for bringing this matter to our attention. Please don’t hesitate to contact me again should you require any further information or assistance.

Yours sincerely

 David Gwynn

Transport for London – Customer Experience

Context is the next big thing. Got an app for that?

I had breakfast a few weeks back with Robert Scoble. Not for the first time, the conversation turned to the subject of context.

It’s an often abused word and a subject close to both our hearts.

In a past life I founded Rummble (created in 2006 to “fix” recommendations for places – we were rather early to market!) and it’s a topic which Robert has written about many times before and is now I understand writing a book about.

I’ve certainly heard the word context more and more the last two or three years. It’s banded around at conferences as if until now no-one has been thinking about it. When announcing Rummble five years ago at Mike Butcher’s first ever London tech event, I was told by Jason Calacanis that the vision was “sh*t and irrelevant”. In one sense he was right. Rummble was far too early to market and ultimately failed as a consumer service.

Layers-of-Context-Awareness-Full-12-11-11Slide from @ClarkDodworths talk about context – click here to read more

Five years on, still few if any services are yet truly contextual (as Robert discusses in his blog) but today I’m excited that contextual search and relevance is more relevant, even fashionable. It’s edging its way out of computer science departments up the start-up agenda.


Context is not to be confused with personalisation. Personalisation filters a set of information to prioritise the things most appropriate to you and your taste.

Contextualisation changes information of surfaced to you depending on the circumstances in which an event occurs, it is dependent on the setting, e.g. environmental factors such as location, time, weather, or a human behaviour such as walking, driving, flying, sleeping, eating.

There is plenty of personalisation out there and some of it really quite good. Your TIVO-clone recommends TV shows. Google personalises your search results. Facebook filters your feed of news from your friends. But most incumbent services don’t join the data dots in the way that they should to produce contextual understanding of what you’re actually doing as a human being.

So I agree with Robert, that there is huge opportunity in this space. He describes the problem of there being too much noise. And there is so much noise because services throw data us when we don’t have use for the data. When information isn’t relevant right now, it’s as bad as junk mail in your post box, only continuous.

The next big thing

One of the next David turned Goliath tech start-ups of this decade will certainly be some clever service or app which deals with that “noise” by understanding your own context.

It may be a highly contextual son-of-Siri for your Google Goggles, or may be a wristband a la Nike Fuel which instead of telling me whether I’m exercising enough, understands my entire day: where I should be, what I should be doing, by which mode of transport and in which order.

And there-in lies the problem with applying context and relevance to your service.  Doing this sort of clever technology requires far more engineering hours than building an Instagram app, which has a single context of whenever the user takes a photo.

I wonder then what that does to the odds of a start-up in this space succeeding?

The holy grail

It’s already almost impossible to get funding in the European ecosystem for consumer-facing services which don’t have an immediate revenue stream so how will start-ups inventing the next big “context-aware” service survive?

Even in Silicon Valley the appetite for investing in consumer services is on a down curve, because it’s so hard to be heard amongst the thousands of apps and websites being launched. And not just in America but in all of the recently spawned start-up ecosystems around the world. Most of the clusters on this list simply didn’t exist five years ago, not in any significant way anyway.

If future start-ups will need more engineering complexity to have a minimum viable product, what does this mean for boot-strapping start-ups and their potential investors?

Hopefully it means that investors will be forced to be more adventurous in their choice of investments, buying-in more heavily to the big visions of entrepreneurs and understanding that this technology will not only take time to build and perfect but that the market is going to take time to mature.

Well, that’s unlikely to happen.

Currently things are going the other way. Enterprise services are once again becoming more fashionable targets of VC money, and in Europe they never went out of fashion!

Dinosaurs to the rescue

Perhaps it means some of the disadvantage that has befallen the corporates of the world, due to the ease and ultra-low cost of create compelling services on the web, now will be reversed.

Cloud services, third party APIs, better programming languages and universally compatible browsers (well nearly) have all made setting up a starting up a start-up uber easy, even if winning in the marketplace still isn’t.

But at least start-ups now have a chance to compete. I can’t imagine Huddle, who is now a serious challenger to Microsoft Sharepoint, would have survived long had they needed to write desktop software, advertise at exhibitions, send junk mail and advertise in trade journals and then ship CDROM’s out the door.

This evolution has increased innovation and democratised the production of computer software (i.e. apps and websites) leaving big companies struggling to respond quickly enough. Corporate hierarchies with all their controls, checks and balances are not good at lean or gutsy, dynamic risk taking on new products (though that is changing)

But as services become more complex and the software behind them has to become more sophisticated (and contextual certainly requires sophistication) does this mean some of the advantages of the grass roots tech-entrepreneur are being eroded ?

Back to school

Students who have a lower cost of living and can invest two years of their study in creating the very technology they will later commercialise may have an unfair advantage in the world of Web 3.0 (let’s accept for a minute that context is what Web 3.0 will be renowned for). There is good precedence for this; Google (built as Backrub at Stanford) and Siri (built at SRI the non-profit lab) are just two of many.

Even if the window of opportunity for great financial success from simple apps will only be open a short while longer, I am sure there will be other opportunities created by the launch of new killer ‘personalised’ services. The provision of API’s as part of many modern services enable developers to build upon one service to create another and that seems something that is unlikely to go away.

In fact, as the Internet in general continues on a path toward everything being more “open” I wonder whether the days of walled gardens for almost any type of service, are numbered.

The Internet of Things, a very hot sector, is by its very nature the poster-boy for openness and interconnectivity. The data itself is the new gold rush (and not just social data). Over the next five years we’ll be stumbling over more and more of it, as everything from your thermostat to your toaster starts to engage in digital conversation with you and everything else around you.

Where next?

In summary then, I think the execution of innovation with mobile apps, which is the future of everything, will indeed become harder. It will take more engineering time to get to an MVP.

But these things do go in cycles. Setting up a newspaper 350 years ago required a rudimentary press, a lot of patience and of course some creativity of what you wanted to say. By the mid-1990’s the cost of launching a newspaper was millions of dollars, a large workforce and a lot of sector expertise. Then along came the Internet which made publishing a newspaper as cheap as the cost of a telephone call with a modem and learning a few funny tags called <h1> <bold> and <center>.

Precision manufacturing has for years been the privilege of large companies. Yet 3D printers are set to hit the $500 mark by the end of 2013. That brings complex physical manufacturing back to the home, where it all started before the industrial revolution nearly 300 years ago.

It seems as one thing becomes harder, opportunity elsewhere becomes easier.

Personally, I’m still dreaming of creating a mobile recommendation app which gives an instant intelligent answer to the simple question “Where should I go next?”

To get to a version 1.0, which answers that question exceptionally well (in other words, an MVP that does to existing recommendations services what Google did to Alta-Vista search results)  I would guess is probably at least two man-years of development. Understanding context takes time. But somebody somewhere is working on it, along with other fantastic solutions for the barrage of big data we are surrounded by today and will be drowning in tomorrow.

Expect the next Google or Siris to appear very soon, on a mobile device near you.

We’re All Drug Addicts. And The Drugs War Is Madness.

Note: See the base of this blog post for links to other external sites with interesting content on this topic.

I could easily spend the entire day writing a post about this headline statement.

In fact, I could probably consume the next year of my life researching and justifying a case for a radical rethink of the way we deal with drugs – both legal and illegal – in our society. But that will have to wait for another life time.

What I do know is that current policy is not working. The war on drugs is being lost every day. For me it’s a matter of simple logic. You can blame capitalism, market forces and the human condition.

If enough people want something badly enough, there is always going to be a healthy market which someone somewhere is going to try and serve in the name of making money.

Put simply, I’d rather that money was collected by the Exchequer (the tax man, in simple parlance) and put to good use, if you’re content to call government spending a good use, than lining the pockets of the few; a group of rich criminals who control and expand their international organised crime empires on the back of mass consumption of illegal substances. Even if you’re not happy with the term good use for government spending, the government does considerably better things with the money than organised crime – well, at least most of the time. Illegal wars excepted.

You’re a drug taker. Oh yes you are. Every day.

Medicines, tea, coffee.. In fact, that most people don’t view coffee – or more accurately caffeine – as a drug, is an anathema to me. Such a powerful psychoactive drug, which is highly addictive and readily available to anyone. Pretty toxic to dogs by the way, so best not perk up your pet Labrador with a quick Nespresso.

The power of this substance was ably demonstrated to me today, after an abstention of a couple of days from this Ethiopian elixir. I woke up at 4AM with a cracking headache. Seven hours and some ibuprofen later I’m no better (and I’m not a big taker of painkillers).

One cafe latte and within 15 minutes, I’m right as rain.

Caffeine at it’s best.

We’re all drug addicts. Alongside the 90% of Americans who consume crystalline xanthine alkaloid doses every day.

The American alcohol prohibition of the 1930’s didn’t work (and in the process, set the stage for three decades of organised crime, as the profits from the illegal alcohol production set the American Mafia up for the next fifty years). It’s ridiculous then to think that prohibition of Marijuana or in fact other substances is going to be successful.

Drugs should be make legal, probably with a couple of exception. Why? Because they can be controlled, quality controlled, access controlled and because Marlboro & co will kick the arse of every drug cartel in the world within months.

A not insignificant 7.6 billion pounds of the UK government tax revenues comes from Tobacco sales. Imagine what you could do with those from  additional drug sales?

Education. Proper care for those addicted to any drug – prescribed medications included.

The sometimes dangerous differentiation between legally rubber-stamped drugs (that many of us consume every day – some good, some bad) and those which are illegal for historical or habitual reasons must surely stop in our lifetime.

Two of the biggest practical problems with the illegal street trade is the up-selling onto harder drugs by street dealers and that those substances which are already dangerous are made more dangerous by impurities. For a drug user, it is a lottery.

How often do you go the off license to buy a bottle of wine or beer and be up-sold by a shop keeper to a crate of 50% proof Polish vodka? ..almost never. And at least even if you did, you could be pretty sure the Vodka wouldn’t blind you.

Every day, people risk their general health by taking illegal substances, bought from dubious sources, and in the process support child labour, horrendous criminal activities both at home and particularly abroad, creating in the process potential future or immediate burdens on our health services, without even having contributed to their funding via the very recreation which subsequently causes the damage.

In summary, de-criminalisation is no answer. This actually makes the situation even worse. It encourages consumption and increases demand which further funds organised crime – as even if not a criminal action to consume, production will remain so.

Politicians need to grasp this nettle and lead. Part of a politicians job is to educate the masses and in the process lead the country to the right solution. That will, for sure, take time. And sadly, perhaps a very long time as some parts of the electorate have not always been renowned for their forward thinking. That might suggest it translates then to potential political suicide for any one who dares suggest the status- quo with drugs is not the way forward. May be. May be not.

Juan Manuel Santos should know what he’s talking about, he’s the President of Columbia. He says http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/nov/13/colombia-juan-santos-war-on-drugs  ..it may be an interesting decade for management of the drug problem.

UPDATE: Here are the full results of the Q1 2013 UK Survey on the amendment of drug policy for the UK Drug Foundation.

UPDATE: Report in May 2013 suggest the war on drugs is leading to a Hepatitis C pandemic

UPDATE: The Global Commission on Drug Policy, supported by Kofi Anan and three ex US Presidents amongst others, alongside Latin American leaders both past and present, damning the existing global policy on drugs.

UPDATE: BBC November 2013 More illegal drugs kill people due to fake content or bad supply

UPDATE: Mark Curry writes of The Truth About Our Favourite Addictive Drug  (i.e. caffeine)

UPDATE: More evidence that media reporting of drugs behaviour (and deaths) is distorted and misguided.

UPDATE: Are some Doctors to blame for the Heroin crisis?