Getting The World On The Communications Grid, One Smartphone At A Time

Last November, I returned from a long trip that covered a number of African countries in which, at times, I ended up in some pretty remote spots. Internet connections are sparse and unreliable even in built up areas, and while I did at one point go for a few days without any connection at all I managed to survive. On thing I discovered is that there is a big difference between choosing to go off the grid and not being able to access the internet at all.

It struck me quite forcibly how much of my life – while not dependent on internet access in the absolute sense – is highly reliant on it being available when I do want access. Not being able to use Skype and having to pay exorbitant local mobile phone charges was just one of the many issues that we had. None of the communication challenges we had prevented us from doing what we were supposed to be doing, but the absence of a good quality stable connection did add unexpected layers of difficulty, expense and complication. I say stable because apart from the few days when we were really out of touch, there was always some sort of internet link to be had. It just didn’t work very well.

Back at our home, our offices or workplace and on our phones, we nearly always have some access. (I don’t want to make distinction between where I was and where I normally reside by using “western world” and “developing world” labels. They can be very misleading and unhelpful but I would like the reader to assume that I refer to my normal internet access state as a place with a sound working infrastructure.) This always-online aspect to our cultural, business and domestic lives has grown rapidly in the last couple of years. But until its enforced absence I was surprised at the extent of my reliance on quick and easy access to the internet.

The most apparent manifestation of the use of new communications technology was not in the use of desktop PCs or laptop, or even internet cafes. It was in the widespread availability and intense use of mobile phones. They were everywhere. Telephony costs are high and most people seemed to be on PAYG SIMs and texting was the main form of communication.

It is quite conceivable to me that as cell links improve, most folks in regions outside the main communication hubs will skip the laptop and desktop computer and do all of their internet exchanges on their mobile phones. Portability and convenience are the main drivers. In my western always-online world, a smartphone is something useful to have on the train or in the pub as a fill-in device between my main communication nodes at home or in the office. For many people around the world, the smartphone will be their primary tool for continuous access to the internet once the infrastructure is in place. Which, hopefully shan’t be too long.

I was left with two conclusions about online technology from that trip. Smartphones will come to dominate the world of communications, and stable internet connections are the surest and fastest ways to spread prosperity and, fingers-crossed, peace.

How Open Data Can Be A Better Path To Job Creation Than Stimulus Packages

“Better data is a better path to job creation than a government stimulus package.”

Jake Brewer of the Sunlight Foundation, a transparency in government organisation, made this claim at a recent event in Washington DC. He also went on to say: “We think we can create more jobs with open data than government stimulus plans.” Ideally, the job of government in tough times is to use the money from taxes accrued in the good times to help its citizens weather the storm. If the government isn’t helping its people then there has to be some questions about its functioning and purpose: questions that could be answered by better information made available in a more useful way.

In the thirties in America, President Roosevelt through his Works Progress Administration and National Recovery Administration programmes made a massive infrastructure investment in transcontinental highways and the building of dams that served not only to create jobs, but that also went a long way to making people’s lives better over the long term by facilitating trade and growth. In the UK, there has been quantitative easing which is just another way of saying printing money and in Obama’s US, the stimulus package seems to mainly consist of shoring up banks and preventing individual States of the Union from going bankrupt. Obviously, times and circumstances are different, but the finger-in-the-dyke approach of our modern leaders seems to be of less long-term value than the approach taken by their forebears in the years of the Great Depression.

Clearly more needs to be done. And liberated and accessible data would be a start. How would data work in creating jobs? Well, let’s assume data wants to be free as Stewart Brand claimed. Unless people are free to access and make use of information, then the value of the data is zero. Making it available makes it valuable. It is axiomatic that the more relevant and useful the information that one has at one’s disposal then subsequent decisions are much better informed. (Even though, as in any human endeavour, the conclusions derived from the data and thus the decisions may be wrong.) But the possibilities of quick, positive, meaningful change far outweigh any supposed problems with people either mishandling or feeling overwhelmed by too much information.

Jake threw up a slide at the event that had the following logic train:

  • Government -> Public Data
  • Public Data -> Online
  • Online -> Transparency
  • Transparency -> Accountability
  • Accountability -> Trust
  • Trust -> Engagement

The first place to start looking for data is the government. After all, it is ours, we paid for it. With a more efficient use of data, we can create the possibility of a more efficient government doing more of the right things at the right time. With a more efficient government, resources can then be freed to be applied to the initiatives that could bring long-term peace and prosperity to a country. In a peaceful and prosperous country, we have the conditions where people can really thrive: to be more creative in all sorts of spheres from enterprise to education, from healthcare to construction. (Properly-built environmentally-sound houses and workspaces can be provided in places where they are needed and wanted.)

With the right information made available, better decisions are possible, and with the right will, many things unthought of before, or unimagined, become possible. Of course, there are vested and entrenched interests who would, in order to hold on to their power and influence, seek to prevent this from happening. But in a more transparent environment any attempt to corral data and spread disinformation would be very quickly spotted for what it is – an outright lie, and thus discredited. What Sunlight has done is to bring back the focus to the idea that representatives are actually that – representatives of our collective and individual wills rather than elected autocrats who go on to fail to fulfill their publicly-mandated remit and gorge themselves at the trough of self-interest and cronyism.

On another slide Jake showed us “The Transparency Cycle”. Although it looks busy at first, it bears being studied. There is an excellent description of how to read it here. If we can use our own information harboured on government filing systems and servers to more effectively manage our own lives, then it is entirely possible that as Jake said: “We can create more jobs with open data than government stimulus plans.”

Stuff We Use That Isn’t Designed For Social Media: The Peri-Personal Space

Research by Marco Iacoboni, Professor of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences in UCLA (and written up in his book Mirroring People: The New Science of How We Connect with Others) suggests that the tools we use such as forks and knives are not just implements that we merely just manipulate in some objectified manner. His research suggests that tools are mapped by our brains in such a way that they become extensions of ourselves.

Not only do we use knives and forks to move and cut our food, we also use them to assess the quality and texture of our food as well. Every tool or implement that we learn to use with some degree of mastery eventually becomes an extension of ourselves. This happens because the brain does not stop mapping our body at the outer layer of the skin. It also maps the immediate environment beyond. This idea has some amazing implications for the way that we interact with the world.

Through enculturation we have the habit of thinking of ourselves as in here and everything else as out there. Professor Iacoboni’s research is showing that this concept may be wrong. It seems our brains handle the world in a ‘hereness’ (my term) space that is proximal to our bodies. He refers to this relationship between us and the world as a “being-amidst” space. All of our interactions with the world, although processed in the brain, are represented to us in this space. It is a space where our feelings live alongside our thoughts and emotions. All of them are moving around and interacting with each taking precedence in our attention from time to time.

It is kind of wild but it’s really not that long ago that we all believed the Sun orbited the Earth. This area of awareness and influence is called the peri-personal space, and this research could have some very definite implications for our daily lives, particularly in the design of the tools that we use.

The social part of social media is very human and natural to us, but the media in the form of the tools it uses, primarily the computer terminal and mobile phone, is pre-existing technology that we have adapted to our needs. The materials and processes may have advanced geometrically, and the processing and storage has progressed exponentially, but the tools we use to interact with them, the qwerty keyboards, mice and touchscreens are refinements and variations on a theme.

If what Dr. Iacoboni’s findings show are true, and there is no reason to doubt or reject them, then we may have to look at the design of terminals and smartphones in a whole new way. That means that terminals and smartphones are no longer thought of as items out there outside ourselves but become, through the means of the mirror neurons inside our brains and the subsequent engineering inspired by these new ideas, avenues through which our brains can connect to other brains more efficiently.

In this context design is every bit as important as engineering. The ultimate goal is complete transparency, e.g. to be able to communicate at a distance with the same fullness of experience that we can communicate with someone sitting or standing in front of us. We know that talking to someone on the phone is far more tiring then having the same conversation while present with that person. Talking to someone on the phone while driving is more dangerous than drinking and driving, but paradoxically there is no real danger in talking with the same person about the same thing in the same car. Somehow in some way the mobile phone requires us to communicate in a highly effortful and non-natural way.

With this new knowledge coming from the cutting edge of neuroscience, we can look again at the fundamental design criteria of phones and computers, and perhaps come up with something new and wonderful that will work with us the way we want to work. We can ask how we can make new communications tools that work more naturally with our brains, making it easier for our brains to turn new interfaces into an extension of ourselves that will in turn determine the level of transparency between individuals.

Brace yourselves, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Digital Business In Ireland’s Innovation Taskforce Report

Generated using Wordle.

The Irish Innovation Taskforce‘s report was launched by Taoiseach Brian Cowen on 11th March, and has been broadly welcomed thus far.

I thought it would be interesting to create a tag cloud based on the report, and also to look at how the report references digital business in Ireland and other linkages to digital technologies.


The group states the need for “clear metrics for measuring outcomes from State investments and other interventions”, and after referencing the potential for gathering the data via state agencies such as the Central Statistics Office (CSO), on page 90 it states that additional metrics could include “technology adoption and creativity by the public at large (e.g. the number of Irish users of social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook; the number of Facebook, Droid or iPhone applications developed for the global market from Ireland).”

The report also highlights ways of measuring academic-industry interactions through looking at “the number and value of academic-industry collaborations; the average number of years of industry experience which academics have obtained; the number and lifetime of academic spin-out companies; the number of new products developed through industry-HEI [higher education institution] collaborations”.

Their key recommendation is for a transparent and objective process that will report on the impact of State funding (on innovation and job creation), but interestingly, the group also recommends that the CSO carry out a survey on “angel funding, venture capital investments, IPOs and other exits by venture-backed companies”.

Sectoral Actions

The report highlights various sectors (food, pharma/bio, medical tech, traded and financial services, ICT, clean tech) and proposed actions for each sector. I will focus on ICT (information and communications technology). Convergence is currently important in the global ICT industry, and Ireland is well placed due to the range of ICT companies currently housed here (“advanced sectors such as Information and Communications Technology (ICT) and Life Sciences, which were targeted for inward investment by FDI policy, experienced significant growth through the mid and late 1990s”).

Beyond a reference to Ireland’s ability to focus excellence in sub-sectors such as mobile, e-learning and financial markets, not much is recommended apart from a “holistic” support package to encourage activities across the value chain. In another section of the report, the need to raise Ireland’s level of mathematical achievement is highlighted since it underpins disciplines such as science, technology, business and finance. No mention is given to Ireland’s emergence as a destination for many of the top [Social] Web companies or as an online gaming hub, but the report does indicate that the sectors referenced are not definitive and emerged from consultations with selected stakeholders. Ireland’s strengths in “renewable energy, electronics, software, and waste and recycling” are referenced in relation to clean tech.

Convergence and Inter-Firm Collaboration

Building on the emerging theme of convergence (not just within ICT, but beyond) and success stories like Creganna-Tactx Medical, the report recommends the “establishment of an industry-led convergent technologies network to facilitate collaboration between companies, academics and medical practitioners across the formerly discrete sectors of pharma, bio, med tech, ICT and engineering” and “marketing Ireland’s advantages as a location for convergence focused activities”. The group recommends asking MNCs what areas of convergence they may be interested in pursuing, and later on highlights laboratory facilities that provide convergence between the disciplines of ICT, life sciences and green technology.

Taxation of Intellectual Property

The report states that “Ireland has an opportunity to become the place of choice within EMEA from which to license and exploit IP.” However, competitiveness with other European countries who are offering “targeted lower effective tax rates on profits derived from the exploitation of IP” may be an issue “for mobile [movable] Intellectual Property rich businesses”.

State Investment in R&D

The high quality of research is highlighted through Government agency investments in ICT research groups like CRANN, but the report refers to issues regarding coordination between agencies: “the multiplicity of agencies places limitations on the capacity to ensure sufficient focus, as well as efficiency, coherence and value for money”. The ability to switch funding agencies (e.g. for commercialisation) is referenced, but beyond that, the referred-to limitations are not expanded upon.

In a later section, the report recommend that there be “a single website providing an access point to information on all relevant schemes available from Enterprise Agencies and other research funders”, and that the portal should “assist collaboration between HEIs and enterprises, for example through hubs to link enterprises and researchers”.


Through info boxes scattered throughout, there are some interesting profiles of Irish-based subsidiaries like Citi and PayPal. Citi cite their Research, Development, Innovation and Learning (RDIL) Centre as carrying out innovations in the areas of “digital account management, portal and multi-channel technologies, media and collaboration, mobile technology and analytics”.

Synergies between arts, humanities and social sciences (AHSS) and science, engineering and technology (SET) are also highlighted: “Creative industries such as television, on-line education provision, web design, development of assistive technologies and digital content are good examples of areas of economic activity which effectively harness the synergies between AHSS disciplines and those of SET.”

You can read the full report here.

Digital Festival Review

Late on 23rd February, I answered a tweet from @johnbreslin and scored myself a free ticket to the Digital Festival taking place in Dublin the next day. With an impressive line-up of speakers, clearly not the usual ones dragged out for digital events this side of the Irish Sea, I was very pleased with myself.

Sadly the Digital Festival did not live up to expectations.

My take on it is because the festival organisers did not work hard enough on briefing their world-class speakers. I’d go so far as to surmise that they didn’t brief them at all. I think they booked them, gave them a topic, then left it at that. The result was that:

  • Shel Israel merely promoted his book. I’m not going to promote it further here, but it’s a book about happy stories coming out of Twitter. I sat there seething that this man was blatantly promoting his book instead of inspiring me – and thought we have plenty of happy stories from Twitter here in Ireland. We don’t need an American to fly in and tell us about it.
  • Martin Bailie from Glue gave an interesting talk that touched on things like memory and how we learn. Very interesting but off brief. He even started his presentation by saying he’d been asked to talk about ‘digital consumers… they don’t exist’ so he promptly spoke about stuff that interests him.
  • Russell Davies on blogs? Nope. He talked about everything and anything but blogs. But what a wide topic to give to someone – talk about blogs – ridiculous!

Other failures on the part of the organisers included:

  • Technology break-down when the sole Irish speaker was about to give his talk. OK that can happen, but surely an experienced event organiser would reshuffle the speakers so that someone (like the ones listed above) who weren’t technology dependent could go on and talk while the techies worked to solve the problem. Instead, Tim Duggan from Mercury Girl Inc, delivered a very poor performance talking through his powerpoints. I felt sorry for him, so I stayed in the room, but when it became apparent that said talk was merely a lengthy description of his portfolio, I left the room and went to grab a coffee.

I’m all in favour of doing more with less – the mantra of succeeding in Ireland these last few years. But there are some things you just don’t scrimp on – refreshments and wifi at a conference are two of them.

  • Yeah yeah I know I didn’t pay for my ticket to the Digital Festival, but for those who did, they were left with a bitter taste in their mouth… it certainly made up for the one course rice and chicken meal that was the all included lunch. No starter. No dessert. I paid €2 for a plate of biscuits to share with my table.
  • Biggest failure of all – no wifi. You could pay for bitbuzz or you could go to the hotel reception and ask for a 1 hour voucher. That’s totally scabby and shit. If you’re running a conference for digital people, surely to God you know that buzz will be created by said people tweeting your event while it’s on?

I left before the last speaker, I’d had enough. It was a waste of a day as I didn’t learn anything and I was so hungry I couldn’t muster the energy up to network properly.

My advice for anyone planning on putting on a digital festival:

  1. Sort a deal with the hotel for free wifi
  2. Go the extra mile and provide a proper lunch
  3. Work hard to push your speakers to deliver talks that will stimulate and inspire
  4. Sit back and cream in the cash!

The Digital Festival organisers only achieved 1 out of 4. #FAIL

Social Games Publisher Zynga To Set Up A Base In Ireland

Zynga, a prominent “casual games” company that develops games for social networking websites such as Facebook and MySpace, has announced that it will establish a base in Ireland shortly. Zynga is best known for its FarmVille and Mafia Wars games.

According to reports in the Irish Independent today, Shernaz Daver from Zynga’s corporate communications division confirmed that the company is in the process of setting up an Irish base. This follows on from the opening of Zynga’s first non-US base in Bangalore, India last month.

“We are expanding our operations into Ireland and will have more to talk about later,” Daver said, declining to elaborate further on Zynga’s precise plans for the Irish base.

It was not stated where in Ireland this new Zynga base will be located, but given the online gaming hub currently being established in Dublin through the presence of PopCap Games, Jolt Online Gaming, Demonware, etc.), and the presence of Facebook’s EMEA headquarters in the city, Ireland’s capital is the most likely choice.

(Coincidentally, I had been asking on Twitter just last week if Zynga had any plans to establish an office in Ireland.)

The Best: Referencing John Herlihy From Google; Third-Level Education In Ireland; Doing What You Love

At the Digital Landscapes conference in Dublin last week, John Herlihy gave the audience a round-up of the corporate culture and attitudes at the company where he works, Google. In amidst the description of personnel and management reviews and how to handle dud projects, he pointed out that in a world with a population of 6.4 billion, good enough isn’t really any good at all. In the video of his remarks, he says in connection with the standards of performance required by individuals in the new economy at 3:07: “It’s not the best by your standards, it’s the best in the world standards. Don’t play League of Ireland football, play Champions League.”

He says it in a matter-of-fact way, but if that isn’t fighting talk then I am not quite sure what is. When it comes to brain power and knowledge capability, Ireland is a gold mine. A gold mine people seem, almost willfully, to ignore. Ireland has many great things going for it and an educated population has to be one of the greatest attributes on what would be a very long list. It has well over 800,000 people who have completed third-level education of some kind. (We’ll leave out the half a million that are coming through the system for the while.)

These are figures from the Central Statistics Office. Adding the third-level graduates together we get a figure of 829,201. Now to compare this to UK statistics. Wolfram/Alpha compares the populations thus.

So in the UK, with a population of just over 14 times the size, one would expect a matching proportion (fourteen or so million) of people having completed third-level education. Not so. From a PDF download at the site of the Department of Children, Schools and Families, 30.9 per cent of all adults aged 19-59F/19-64M have a qualification at level 4 or higher. This equates to 9.1 million people. So by taking these government figures we can make a useful comparison.

  • UK: 9.1/60 million = 15% of the population with third-level education
  • Ireland: 829,201/4.3 million = 19.2% of the population with third-level education.

With proportional adjustment, this means that for every 4 Irish persons with a substantial education history there are three UK citizens. Or if Ireland were the same size as the UK there would be 12 million Irish with third-level education to the UK’s 9 million. There is a greater depth of education in the Irish population by a truly enormous 33%. By any standards that is a phenomenal difference that reflects very well on the potential of the Irish population to make great progress in the future.

But still, being the best seems both a daunting idea and a daunting challenge: being the best means being better than all the folks that are coming out of those fine American universities. Being better than the multitudes graduating from technical academies of India and China. In short, being better than everyone else. So, how do we be the best? The answer, I believe, is in our hearts.

In a recent interview for Social Bits, economist David McWilliams summed it up perfectly. The quote comes at 3:20 in this video: “Do what you love, as only doing what you love, you do what you’re good at.” It’s not what others think you should be doing or what you think you ought to be doing. The way to truly excel is to do what you really love to be doing.

It very probably is that simple.