social media, Web 2.0

Instagram’s T&C and the hipsterization of the digital economy

The twittersphere has gone mad after Instagram’s announcement that they were changing their T&C, sparking a users’ revolt. The issue revolves around the possibility, for Instagram, to sell photographs without the author’s consent.
Needless to say, I had been expecting this announcement for quite a long time.

 

In the beginning was the dot-com boom
Once upon a time, Flickr had won the competition of the photo-sharing web services. I say web service because that was what Flickr was: not an “app” in today’s sense. After the dot-com boom with all of its “join us for free, one day we’ll have a product“, which failed to deliver that promise of creating a viable business model, history brought us a new concept: Freemium. Flickr incarnated perfectly that concept: it offered a very basic service for free (only 200 pictures), and offered a paid-for photo storage option for a reasonable price. What could beat them?

 

Hey, hipsters
Years passed, and something began to shift. Freemium started to look dull. There was a big return to the very idea that had created the dot-com bubble: you don’t need to concentrate on the business model, just execute the idea. Plenty of VC money fostered this idea. The funding for $41,000,000 of the product-less start-up color.com (and the attempt Google made to buy them for $200,000,000) is recounted as an example to follow (or as a total joke by the outsiders).

What were the reasons behind this return? I think it’s down to two facts:

  • the progress in technology, that made mobile devices available to an increasing number of people, and their penetration reaching ratios never seen before: this convinced VCs that there was nothing that could possibly go wrong having the right mass of users (i.e. a model based on conversion rates)
  • a culture switch in the type of people setting out to create businesses: from product nerds (think of Bill Gates) to hipsters.

 

Growth is the word
Hipsters have the big merit of having turned entrepreneurship into something cool, fashionable, and exhibiting good taste. Unfortunately this came with the attached condition that good ideas don’t need a money-making component straight away. No, you first need to concentrate on growth. Growth became the mantra, the magic word that could move capitals. Companies started to receive an evaluation no longer based on their profitability, but on their growth ratio. Sometimes, not even on their growth ratio but on their growth expectations. Instagram itself was acquired by a panicking Facebook for a whopping $1,000,000,000. At the same time Flickr became unfashionable.

 

Murder by growth
There is one problem with growth, however, and it’s rarely spoken about: growth can kill. A profit-less company can’t sustain growth. Well, it can, provided it constantly finds VC to back it. As a consequence, a relevant part of the business ends up concentrating on increasing the appeal to VCs rather than to paying users. The two aren’t necessarily two planets apart, but they’re not exactly the same.

 

If the product is free, you are the product
This is one of my favourite quotes, because it’s so true. When a product is free, you are consciously or not accepting T&C that allow the company to use your data. It’s what Google does, making money on ads made relevant to the user by what they know about them. Think about it just a second: Instagram and Flickr offer basically the same service. Storage and sharing of photographs. Surely Instagram’s offering is cooler and sleeker. And the lack of a proper mobile app for Flickr has never been received positively by the market. When Yahoo acquired Flickr, they paid $35,000,000. Instagram cost considerably more than that. However, Flickr had a product and sold it. Flickr has become profitable very quickly and in a very tangible way. Will Instagram ever be able to get to the green valley?

 

Flickr is the new Flickr?
There are many ways Instagram might get out of the PR fiasco that the T&C change has become. Certainly, they could just wait and hope that people will forget about it. They could offer an opt-out fee, but this would create two sets of T&C for two categories of users. They could start charging for the app, following the example of the very popular Whatsapp; what’s even more interesting is Whatsapp’s explanation of why they refuse to display ads (because they want to concentrate on selling a product and service). I think there’s a lot Instagram can still learn from Flickr. For example, Flickr offers the option to license images to third-parties, making a commission in the process. This is smart and puts the user in a better feeling towards it than being forced to give up all their pictures. Instagram was the new Flickr. But with Flickr re-entering the photo-sharing game from the front door (with an incredibly – and unexpected – good app) it might place itself as the new Instagram. In two steps, Flickr might be the new Flickr. Teaching the digital entrepreneurs that having a clear idea of how to generate revenue can be what keeps a “startup” successful – renovating and innovating – for years.
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gov, hackday, my projects, open data, Work in IT

chaMPion

I never thought hackdays could be so much fun that I would end up attending not just one but two in about ten days, getting flu in between. Oh, and that my team would end up winning the overall Best in show award over 27 other hacks and almost 100 people! Which is what this blog post is about…

First of all: credit where credit is due

The folks from Rewired State deserve a massive thank you for setting up such events, and for showing me that no matter the age and background of the people you work with there is room for great results bacause geeks more than often work well together, in teams, despite what stereotypes like to say.

ChaMPion: what is it?

The idea behind chaMPion is rather simple: you want to find MPs who care about what you care. Often their “declared interests” are not particularly meaningful or up to date, so we decided we would mine the content of their speeches.

ChaMPion is a tool that allows the user to enter a given topic and returns a list of MPs who have spoken about that topic, ranked by relevance.

How does it work?

In easy steps:

  1. we downloaded the extract of the Commons debates for all the sessions of Parliament since the first sitting in May 2010 following the General Election to the latest in November 2012
  2. we parsed these extract and aggregated the speeches by MP – as a result we obtained a map associating any given MP to all of his or her speeches
  3. for each MP we run an algorithm that calculates their keywords distribution; specifically we used Topia.Termextract which, given a text, determines its important terms and their strength
  4. we calculated a ratio for each word over the total of terms extracted for that MP and used this as a basis for our rank
  5. we built an API that searches by keyword and a captivating UI that displays the results graphically, together with other data for the MP and his or her constituency harvested from other sources.

Did you find anything interesting?

Yes! For example, if you search for phone the winner is Tom Watson; if you search for rape, it’s Caroline Flint.

Why didn’t you use X, Y, Z?

YES, you are right, this is not perfect, but it was meant to be just a quick hack that received much more interest than we were anticipating :)

For example, using Topia.Termextractor was not my first choice. For a semantic analysis of this kind a beautiful mathematical tool called Latent Dirichlet Allocation (LDA) is generally the natural choice. LDA runs a statistical analysis over a corpus of text, assuming that a document is about a collection of topics. It then returns the distribution of such topics. It’s not difficult to understand. For example, it might say that a speech by Tom Watson is 30% about phones, 30% about news and 40% about crime.

Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to find a library for LDA that worked on my laptop.

Will you keep developing it?

Given we received some pretty heart-warming feedback the answer is yes. For example, I’m going to try and find (or develop) an LDA library to have finally a proper topic model.

We also plan to introduce more statistics, possibly at a single MP level, and to try and work out a temporal component as well, in order to display how interests change over time. This might not make sense for all the MPs, as most of them will give a speech very rarely, but there is certainly a subset for which this analysis is meaningful.

Starting next week, the website will be updating with data from the coming sittings.

Code?

The code for this hack is all on my GitHub account. Feel free to download it, modify it, run your services on top of it. I’ll keep uploading changes and the most recent stable version will always be found running at http://www.champion.puntofisso.net. Feedback is also very welcome, but beware that the code is very dirty until I manage to tidy it up a little. Requests for functionality are encouraged and will be considered :)

Another round of thanks

To wrap up, I gave Mark the input of “look there’s an interesting hackday” but I will never thank him enough for actually taking me seriously, setting up one of the best teams ever, and facilitating our conversations and work. Lewis has been a great partner in crime, giving his best on a simple but effective UI which has certainly been überimportant in conveying our idea and let us win.

Sharon has provided invaluable knowledge of the works of the Parliament and some incredibly good mock-ups of the final interface, while Hadley has helped with a great understanding of the datasets.

Together with our chats with Glyn, Sheila and Brett, we had some good fun discussing ideas and saving ourselves the burden of having to go through a set of certainly wrong hacks during the day.

A big recommendation: Cards Against Humanity is the best team-building tool ever conceived.

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humour, politics

All elections are the same

“Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will all be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.”

– Connecticut Courant, September 15, 1800, describing what would happen if Thomas Jefferson were to be elected president over incumbent John Adams.

 

(from: Retro Campaigns)

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geo

Highlights from WhereCampEU 2012

UPDATED: added the names of two speakers: Hugues Bouchard and Diego Arechaga.

We learn from Ed Parsons, Google’s Geo man, that Google Maps and OSM are not fierce enemies. Au contraire, “Google wants OpenStreetMap to succeed“. So I took a picture of Ed presenting OSM, announcing it cheekily as “Ed’s defection to OSM” (no, that’s not true).

All of this might have earned him the title of Saint Parsons (thanks, Henk Hoff).

I agree on one thing: Google Maps and OSM are not competitors. OSM is a database providing geographical data. You can use it to create a cartographic rendering, but it’s not its main goal. People seem to forget it.

 

Yahoo’s Adam Rae showed how you can use Scale Spaces theory to infer regions in a map from the geographical distribution of tags. Although Adam’s results are great in their own right, and the mere ability of detecting boundaries via tags is a fascinating possibility, I find this extremely interesting also for its implicit dynamism: tags about a location can change.

Ethnographers who wish to learn how the perception of what is a place, how a place changes, or how the boundaries of a location are fluid, might use this technique. This is true in space and time. An interesting, although intended to be funny, example of such perception shift is http://thisisntfuckingdalston.co.uk showing that the boundaries of a place change according to a spatial component. Moreover, a temporal component might be added to the model, assessing how people’s perception of a given place changes over time. Take, for example, an expanding neighbour.

 

Jan Nowak, an engineer at Nokia, showed how Nokia Maps API can be used to go “from data to meaning in 20 minutes“. Someone complained that “Nokia doesn’t do anything that Google hasn’t already done“. I don’t think this holds true: first of all, there are some genuinely innovative UI elements in Nokia Maps (see WebGL). But more importantly, they are adding a great element of competition to already existing services. Even if Nokia Maps were just yet another map service, with comparable features to Google’s, that would be beneficial to developers and to the geo community at large. It’s a challenge that will bring innovation. Why complain?

 

Jeremy Morley from the University of Notthingham gave the attendees the last updates about the OSM-GB project, whose aim is to measure and improve the quality of OpenStreetMap in Great Britain. This is a very interesting project with very useful outcomes both in the academic and applicative areas. The project aims to answer questions such as how authoritative a crowd-sourced map can be, and to show how multiple sources, including crowd-sourced maps, can be used together to improve the overall quality of the geographical information. One very important aspect of this project is exactly its contribution to OSM happening at the same time as offering a model for updates to non-crowdsourced mapping efforts.

 

Having contributed to the project and to the presentation, I’m very happy with the reception that Taarifa has received, mostly thanks to a great presentation by Mark Iliffe, a PhD student at the University of Nottingham. His public engagement skills are well known and they earned Taarifa promises of contribution by many of the people attending. There was also a mini hack-session with over 10 people willing to discuss Taarifa and envision ways to improve it and put it to good use.

 

Day two opened with Jan Van Eck telling the audience why Esri is interested in Where Camp and how they think they can contribute to the geo-computing community.

He showed some of Esri’s work in the area of maps production and user experience, with the goal of making a case in support of their philosophy, not always in tune with that of OpenStreetMap. However, it must be said that Esri’s contribution to the perception in the public of the existence of a “geographical issue” is certainly a big one.

 

Another interesting piece of work by Yahoo, led by Vanessa Murdock with contributions by Hugues Bouchard and Diego Arechaga (pictured below), showed how hash tags can be used to infer hyperlocal trends, similarly to what Adam presented earlier on.

 

Goldsmith’s design student Francisco Dans led a very practical session about real-time data crunching with map displaying as a result, with tricks and tips on how to use Processing to parse xml/kml. He showed how he used this framework to display trams in San Francisco on a map in real time. Francisco advises using UnfoldingMaps as a tool to create interactive thematic maps and live geovisualizations.

 

Ollie O’Brien is a well known attendee of WhereCamps and Geomobs, working as a Research Associate at CASA. He introduced his recent work on creating City Dashboards: web aggregators of several data sources about a single city. These are extremely useful central points of information for citizens and tourists. Ollie also showed a fun and mind boggling piece of software, developed at CASA, that allows users to fly the sky as they were pigeons. Using a Microsoft Kinect controller and Google Earth, the user can “play” with the system by flying among building using gestures.

 

Laurence Penney is always aggregating the more “cartographicals” of us at his enlightening talks. This time, he came up with a very insightful talk about unidimensional (or linear) maps. A good example of such maps is the Trajan’s Column in Rome, which tells a story in time and space on a single dimension. Of course, a similar technique can be used to represent geographical information. In the past such maps have been used by seamen as “rolling maps“, in a way not too dissimilar to what current GPS navigators do, by displaying what your next step is. What was very interesting in Laurence’s talk is how he conveyed the high aesthetical value of these maps.

There were many other open discussions, including Nutiteq‘s Jaak Laineste showing their latest SDK, useful to create and navigate 3D maps, and ITO World‘s Peter Miller showing how ITO uses and contributes to OSM by adding layers of data. Philip Kandall of Skobbler introduced some advanced routing features (“routing from A to B is boring“) that will be in future navigators, including route calculation by time available for the journey (i.e. not as a maximum time, but as a minimum).

 

As traditional for WhereCamps, a couple of light-hearted moments have closed the unconference: Tim Waters‘ geo-yoga, involving stretching positions that mimic country shapes (I guess we can work on a KML representation of such positions?) and Mark Iliffe’s Geo-Locating Geobeers, suggesting how the Taarifa Platform can be used to report beer drinking location and level of… happiness.

(full set of photos http://www.flickr.com/photos/puntofisso/sets/72157629552681824/)

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humour, newsletter

In other news

Oh yes, you will allow me a bit of self-promotion, right? :-)

I’ve been thinking for some time about starting a newsletter of my own about geeky stuff. No, not necessarily IT-related stuff if you are thinking about that. The idea is to collect things that can excite us geeks.

That said…

  • You’re strongly advised to join at http://tinyletter.com/puntofisso.
  • You’re strongly advised to unsubscribe soon after, if you find it boring.
  • You will get a letter every 7-15 days.
  • [As regular as you were before you started taking that probiotic yogurt every morning. (Don't blame the granola).]
  • I promise you will get the most interesting links I’ve found. And sometimes rechts, too.
  • I promise you will get books recommendations. Or at least excerpts of them. That might include a Bible or two.
  • I promise you will get strange music. Trash music. Fake music. Classical music. I hope you like Rammstein, but they won’t necessarily be in the soundtrack.
  • (No worries for your crystal glasses: I’m not gonna sing.)
  • I promise you will get poetry. Not necessarily written by humans. Possibly not written by me. But you never know.
  • I promise you will get interesting photos. No, not just mine. Yes, I’ll try to get that “just” away, but I want to have options.
  • I promise you will get the best ideas in circulation. You will get maps to navigate through them.
  • I promise you will get the best geeky humour. And (home) cheese (making) recipes. I’ll call them algorithms.
  • I promise you will get the most exciting conversation I saw on twitter. Condensed.
  • I promise you all of this will be short and occupy more or less a page.
  • I promise you will get unicorns, double rainbows, Möbius strips. You will get umlauts and maths. You will get where no man, where no one has gone before. Just not boldly.

I should give credits to @robertbrook. He doesn’t know me, I don’t know him. But his funky newsletter was enough to convince me to write one myself. So you should rather sign up to his.

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social media, Web 2.0

Is Social Media changing our relationship with Death?

“This morning I’ve started the most amazing journey”. These are the opening words of a Facebook status update of a friend of mine, announcing her own death. The status goes on to explain about her terminal illness (many of her friends, like me, were unaware of it), explain why she kept it private, and say good-bye, all in first person. How peculiar yet powerful is it?

Surely my friend was not someone belonging to the “Internet generation”, being in her seventies. Still, she was a moderately active Facebook user. Especially as someone living far away from many of her friends, she used Facebook as a way to keep in touch. And when she understood that her illness was terminal, she decided to arrange for what was going to happen on her profile. Hence my question: is social media changing our relationship with death?

There are many examples of how death is represented on social media and how social media becomes the first point of arrival for mourners (and the curious). Especially with famous people, their Facebook profiles become sources of photographs for the press. Their final status updates are used to show how sudden their departure was. On Twitter there is a flow of messages from mourners using hashtags as #RIP. Steve Jobs’ death became a trending topic on Twitter, as Amy WInehouse’s. But all of this is just the digital transposition of an non-digital process.

Announcing one own’s death is a new kind of behaviour, a novel need emerging as a consequence of the perceived importance of social media in our everyday lives. As we have become less worried of posting photos of our children and to display our location to a level of accuracy that would have scared us ten years ago, so we have started experiencing death in unexpected ways. We can still see the profiles of dead friends as they were still part of our daily lives. As an eternal memorial to their lives, they stay with us, presumably forever – or until Mr Facebook decides to delete them, sometimes upon request of friends and relatives. But differently from Twitter, where a profile of someone who dies just disappears from their followers’ timeline, Facebook profiles stay there and occasionally make a comeback in the most painful way: “today is your dead friend’s birthday – write happy birthday on their wall!”.

In a new model of human relationships, friends end up writing that well wishing message. The birthday of a dead friend becomes the occasion to revive them. Hundreds of messages from common friends will spread on all the common connections’ timelines. New behaviours, shaping a new attitude towards death. It’s collective mourning. Death has become social. Can you think of an equivalent of this in a non-digital context? Have you ever been at a cemetery, making a mass-visit to a dead loved one? I don’t think so, and that’s where social media is changing our relationship with death. It makes people remember once more and at the same time it provides ways to celebrate a person in their social circle.

Given that death becomes so relevant to our daily digital lives, it’s not surprising that people start making arrangements for their digital after-life. Expressing the need to make your death manifest on your Facebook profile is acknowledging that your digital self is an important part of your life. Some people might behave differently; some might decide to close their profiles, or ask relatives to delete them. As in a non-digital context, for some life will go on, for some will not. But there’s no denying that social media is affecting our perception of and reaction to death in the same public, open way that it has changed other previously private aspects of our lives.


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computer science, my projects, Work in IT

Production systems can’t be beta

Warning: this is just one of those ranting, whinging, blog posts you all developers like.

Yesterday I have been struggling almost half an hour with a python script. A very simple one: connect to a system, download an XML. This XML is a paginated list containing the number of the current page, the next one, and the last. The script should have simply got to the next page, read the “next” number, downloaded such page, and terminate when current == last.

Easy, right?

Except I spent half an hour trying to understand why the script was going into an infinite loop. I am an experienced programmer, but not a massively confident one: when things don’t work, I check my code. You can call it coding modesty if you prefer.

It turns out the problem was in the XML: whatever the page, it always contains “this = 1″ and “next = 2″. This is supposed to be a production system, at its version 3, for which the institution I work for pays a huge amount of money.

This is quite a big bug on a basic function of what is supposed to be a production system. Which prompts me the obvious question: have they ever tested it?

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