GeoLocation: A View from The Dublin Web Summit

The Dublin Web Summit held at the end of last month had six hundred attendees and over fifty speakers, many of them major players in their own fields. The Summit itself was not about specialism but about bringing people together and the range of talks combined with the degree of knowledge and experience as seen in both speakers and the attendees reflects how big the Web itself really is in terms of being an object that affects almost every part of our daily lives and as a subject deserving serious consideration.

It covered a wider field of subjects than any one article could hope to address. So to keep it simple we have focused this article on geolocation. We see more and more of this technology incorporated into our mobile phones and our Social Media services everyday and we think the best is yet to come and probably very soon.

Checking in is a very specific way of indicating your geographic location. Almost any app can use location in some shape or form making location a more contextual and relevant experience to the user.

In his talk at the Summit, Matt Galligan, the Co-founder and CEO of SimpleGeo talked about providing developers with an easy way to understand the coordinates supplied by devices so they can build geolocation functionality into their application. Essentially SimpleGeo is trying to enable a world where app developers do not have to worry about many of the complexities that surround handling geolocation data.

A coordinate is just a coordinate. While latitude and longitude coordinates are a good way to describe a location on Earth they don’t tell you much else. The coordinates could either the centre of a city or the centre of a desert. Translating a coordinate into something useful and meaningful, for example the weather for where an individual happens to be, is what makes geolocation technology useful. Matt spoke about several current apps:

  • Bump is an app that is used to swap contact information (much more environmentally friendly than business cards!) Two phones literally hit or bump each other and contact details are swapped.
  • ShopKick is another useful app by knowing where you are standing it can notify nearby stores of your presence. If those stores are running a promotion from inside the app the user may then receive a coupon or points if they then choose to enter the store.

    Best Buy and Macy’s in the US are currently using this app as a business to consumer experiment instore  to help personalize the shopping experience for the shopper with discounts appearing directly on their receipts at the till.

As we know, many consumer cameras are now being produced with geotagging features. You can now organise your photos by location on maps with geotagged photos. The same goes for music and sounds. These pieces of media can be geotagged and then layered over Google Maps. You can experience a place in the world from an entertainment and scientific perspective. We are able to know more and more about any given place in the world beyond the “this is where I went on my break” abilities we now have. School field trips will never be the same again.

Brad Fitzpatick of Livejournal created an Android App to open his garage door. He has a webserver connected to his garage door opener so he can open it over the network based on his geolocation. When riding his motorbike home as soon as he gets within a certain distance his garage door opens automatically. He can ride right in and park his motorbike in the garage without having to remove his helmet and gloves. Brad has also made this app available here.

Matt Galligan also uses geotechnology to control devices in his home as well. His iphone has an app that connects to his wifi network and then connects to a Control4 box. Control4 is a company that produces home automation control systems.These can control every electronically controllable item in the home. Matt has it connected to many of his devices; his Xbox, his heating and his television. Each individual light switch contains a wireless receiver and transmitter in a little box.

It uses a technology called Zigbee (802.15) which is designed for short range communications. However, the current range of smartphones don’t have this chip in them as of yet so none of the apps can communicate directly with the lights in a home but who knows what possibilities will be developed in the near future.

Privacy issues
 
With all this data available privacy is always going to be a concern. However, the responsibility of revealing your location comes down to:

  • The App
  • The user

The user is responsible for exposing the location and thankfully all the smartphones make this very clear. The iPhone, for instance, tells you when your location is being queried so you know about it.

One Step Further

How we view geolocation information may change redically in the sense that mobile devices may not always mean smartphones. Matt spoke about new glass panel overlays in his presentation. He showed the audience Graphene sheets. These are sheets of carbon just one atom thick. They have great strength, flexibility, transparency, and electrical conductivity.

The information surrounding you in your environment can be made available on the graphene sheets simply by holding them up and viewing objects in the environment through them. For example, you can see the value of houses in your locality by measn of making data and geolocation data on the web explicit in real time.

It seems by the very fact that we are physically somewhere and are always engaged with our environment these new tools offer us ways to enhance our geospatial awareness in ways we are only just starting to be able to grasp. It is clear that in the future geolocation is going to be a large part of everything we do. Geolocation technology is already blurring the edges between our offline and online worlds and the gap is becoming increasingly seamless.

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The iPad and the Advent of Tablet Computing


Reviewing this post while on a break.

In the movie Collateral, Vincent, an assassin played by Tom Cruise hijacks a Los Angeles cab along with kidnapping it’s driver. On his way to various locations through the night to fulfil his murderous remit he manages to rack up a body count in a way that can be only be classified as supernumerary to requirements.

To keep track of his schedule Vincent uses a tablet device. So what? You may ask. After all Apple has shipped 3.9 million ipads in the last quarter. While they are still not machines that you see everyday they are nevertheless relatively common. However, Michael Mann‘s film was released in 2004 some six years before the iPad started shipping. I guess while in pre-production there was an assumption that tablet computing technology would be in some way familiar to the wider viewing audience by the time it would come out. Clearly that wasn’t so then why the delay?

The tablet featured in the film is a HP TC1100 which was discontinued in 2005. Like the iPad it was a far from perfect device but amazing for its time so leaving technical comparisons aside it would according to conventional business wisdom leave inadequate marketing as the probable culprit for it’s failure to capture the public imagination and fly off the shelfs.

But that would be unfair for the iPad to have been as successful as it has been it needed the iPhone to precede it into the market place. It needed the lessons learned in how to build a great user experience through having customers interact with the device by using a touch screen. It needed people to get used to how apps work, It needed, considering it’s still quite high price, trust that the concept of tablet computing was valid before committing to using it. Tablet computing had to be more than a neat idea.

According to Steve Jobs, Apple was actually working on the iPad before the iPhone. However, that all changed when his engineers demonstrated inertial scrolling to him. He decided it seems, pretty much on the spot, to incorporate inertial scrolling into the iPhone and to make that the priority for release. It’s doubtful that anyone will ever know the machinations and calculations that went on in Steve Jobs’ head at that time but the resulting decision was inspired.

Widespread iPhone use and it’s attendant operating system user base made the introduction of the tablet genre of computing devices easier by making touch-screen more acceptable for normal users.

My main use for a computer is for writing. I am writing this blog post on an iPad to maintain a somewhat unnecessary idea of congruity between form and content. However, more than a few of hours of this and it will get old pretty quick. But all in all, for a post of this length it is doable and it is fine. It is also fine because this is clearly not what the iPad is designed to do and I don’t resent the limitations. What it is designed to do is to make accessing texts and images whether on the web or not very easy. Manipulating them is a second order of importance.

One of the most enjoyable things about using the iPad at this early stage is turning on people who would normally consider themselves technophobic to one of the greatest wonders of our age – the Internet. Most people don’t code, don’t build websites or even create content via blogging. They don’t care about any of that at all. All they care is about what the web can do for them in which in most cases is in terms of providing access to information of personal interest. Being able to see the wedding pictures of a long distant nephew is important for example. To be able to do that just by touching or swiping a screen gets past the whole don’t press any buttons or something bad will happen meme that a lot of people have with computers. The touch-screen tablet format goes a long away to reduce reticence and fear about computers and computing and makes accessing the web much easier for more people.

But it is just not for wary and the uninitiated. In a recent interview with Technology Voice Tom Raftery told us,

“iPads are the hottest consumer devices out there and not just for consumers. Businesses are buying them in bulk and distributing them internally. They are a fantastic form factor for consuming internet stuff and they are going to get better. In just a few months the next version of the ipad will be out. You can guess it is going to have a retina display, you can guess it is going to have a front facing camera, you can guess it is going to have Facetime. It’ll have more storage space and a usb or micro-usb port. These are things that are surely going to come to the ipad and they are just going to walk all over that market.

“I use the iPad as a laptop replacement for conferences. A big issue bringing a laptop to a conference is that you’re always looking for power. The battery will run out after two or three hours whereas the iPad will still have plenty of power after eight hours of use.”

When i am not in need of a keyboard to write at a comfortable speed my preferred method of accessing the Web, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Tracked.com and checking in on the Technology Voice site is by using the iPad. The on-screen keyboard is just fine for dealing with emails, tweets and status updates. But the one feature that I appreciate above else is being able to go all day without having to hunt for a power point, That alone makes it worth having in my book.

However, not being a total Apple fanboy, there are things that do need to be improved and I do hope that despite Apple’s massive head start other manufacturers could at least come up with something significantly cheaper. Then, perhaps, seeing tablet computers in movies won’t be such an anachronistic experience.

Tom Raftery: Green Tech And Social Media

Tom Raftery’s was one of Ireland’s earliest adopters of Social Media and had the highest subscribed blog in the country from 2004 until 2008. Now residing in Spain, he uses the experience acquired over years of blogging and tweeting, and applies it to his work as an energy and sustainability analyst with GreenMonk.

Taking advantage of our time in conversation, we asked him for his take on the social media scene as it exists now.

Facebook is becoming more ubiquitous. As they’ve expanded the functionality of it they are sucking more people in. It passed the 500 million mark recently and it has become the place to go.

YouTube has become a search destination. It’s now the second largest search engine in the world after Google. What people are doing now is going to directly to YouTube to find videos. That has implications – there are lots of video sites you could be using like blip.tv, Vimeo, and several others. But why would you use them if YouTube is the place that everyone goes to? If you wanted traffic for your video, would you put it anywhere else other than YouTube really? It strikes me you would be kind of crazy to.”

Before we go on to discuss Twitter, it is worth remarking that one of the reasons Tom reduced his blogging in comparison to his output prior to and up until 2008 was his observation of how he himself was using Twitter more and more. At the time of writing, he has just breezed past 27,000 tweets. He has acquired some expertise in the ways of Twitter and shares a few tips with us.

  • “Twitter itself is getting better and better. There’s lots of ways of using Twitter. If you want to get a post retweeted, do simple things like make sure there are enough characters at the end of the tweet that are free. If people use the old-fashioned retweet, then make sure there’s enough space to include the name of your user account. Make your tweet a hundred characters long instead of a hundred and forty. Leave some space.
  • “Make the tweets short and include a link. But include context so people will know what it’s about so they can click on the link. Also, put enough interesting stuff in those hundred and forty characters so people go, ‘cool’, and click the retweet.
  • “Also, use the DM [direct messaging] for things that are particularly important. DM the ‘whales’ as some people call them, and say, ‘Could you give this some traffic? I think this is interesting or I think it is important.’ That’s obviously something that you don’t want to abuse because people can block you. But if you do it every now and again, it’s not a problem. People will reciprocate and you need to reciprocate if people do it to you.
  • “One of the things a lot of people overlook is the favorites feature on Twitter. It’s something I use regularly, particularly when I am away from my computer. It is something that I use on my phone. You see something that is interesting, say I must look at that later, and hit the favorite button, and then when you are at your computer you can go through your favorites list. I use that a lot, and I also use it when I am on my main computer: sometimes when I don’t have time to look at something and other times when I think, ‘Wow, that’s cool. I should hang on to that.’
  • “It’s a good idea, if you think someone is particularly interesting, to have a look and see what they’ve favorited, because then you are using them as a filter by being able to see what they find interesting. Also, with people you find interesting, go through the list of the people they follow because inevitably you’ll find interesting people there to follow yourself.”

Openness in social media, openness in business

GreenMonk is the line of business within RedMonk that deals exclusively with energy and sustainability. Uniquely for analysts, Tom and his three colleagues ‘open source’ all the work that they do. Research articles, analysis and other materials are published openly using blogs, videos and so on. The net effect of this approach is that they have outsourced all their marketing to Google.

As Tom says, “You go to Google to research the sort of stuff we are working on, and our competitor’s stuff won’t come up because it is hidden by a registration wall and a pay-wall. Whereas with ours: no registration, no pay-wall. Google gets to see it so everyone else gets to see it. What that means is that… because we have this amazing Google juice we punch way above our weight in terms of our influence.

“We are also all over Twitter. We are constantly putting stuff out there. Therefore we are perceived as being massively influential and we get invited to a lot of conferences. What the vendors are hoping for is that they get a bit of our influence.

“Also, [at the conferences] we are getting to see a broad swathe of what is going on in our particular areas so we can give context-sensitive advisories to our clients.

“Clients approach us and they hire us for a given number of hours a year. The pricing is all open and it is all on our website. Normally those hours are assigned against given projects and we give advice in that context.”

Tom is a strong believer that man-made climate change is happening and will have disastrous consequences for all of us, but many are not so well convinced and this can lead to some very polarised arguments. Instead of engaging in fruitless or sometimes frustrating debates, which many times serve only to alienate the parties concerned, Tom chooses, through his work, to take a much more pragmatic approach.

“Businesses are built around quarterly results. They are not built around ten- or twenty-year outlooks. Fortunately, most of the things that benefit the climate benefit the bottom line for companies. It’s about increasing efficiencies. If you are reducing carbon, you are reducing your waste product. You are being more efficient, and if you are being more efficient, you save money.”

Tom’s work is evidence that the intelligent use of social media communication forms, styles and methodologies has practical applications in the wider commercial community. If nothing else, as Tom says, “social media is the only way to get the message out in the shortest time, easily and cheaply.”

Interview: Paddy Cosgrave and the Birth of a Summit

Thursdays are a traditional night out in Palo Alto and Paddy Cosgrave, in accordance with local custom, was out sharing a few late night brews with some of the early stage people from Facebook. One of his companions turned to him and according to Paddy asked him to come to “this great breakfast networking and talk that begins at 7 AM.” Paddy was taken aback that his friends who had been at Facebook since pretty much the start and who were incredibly wealthy and successful would still want to get up at that hour of the morning after being out so late at night.

As Paddy tells the story, “I said, ‘Are you mad, why do you want to do that?’ And he cut me straight down and said, ‘Paddy, Silicon Valley doesn’t work because nerds sit behind computer screens 24/7. It works because those nerds are occasionally drawn together by great events and great speakers. It’s at these events you meet new employees. It’s where you meet new investors. It’s where you discover new ideas from new conversations you’ve started and it’s where you find the future value that you’re going to start new companies with. That’s the eco-system, that’s how it all works.’”

Later, when Paddy got back to Ireland, he went to Trinity College Dublin to visit with his little sister Anna who was studying there and have coffee. He says, “We were just catching up and she said to me, ‘The Internet is so big these days: wouldn’t it be great if you had some of the big internet names come and talk to the student society.’ I thought it was a crazy idea, but then it was as if a lightbulb went on over my head.” The idea for the first of the Dublin Web Summits was born.

“I just e-mailed some guys I knew,” recounts Paddy, “and got hold of Jimmy Wales who set up Wikipedia and Tim Draper who is this kind of iconic VC from Silicon Valley and pitched to them, ‘Do you want to come to Trinity, speak to some students and also speak to the wider Irish tech community. We don’t get guys like you very much, it’s an interesting country and there is a lot going on and we’ll look after you.’ It just built from there. It started on a whim really.”

The fourth Dublin Web Summit, #dws4, which takes place on the 28th and 29th of October, is a deliberately broad-based event as a major idea of Paddy’s is to bring people together from different areas of interest and specialities who perhaps would have not met otherwise.

Paddy says, “The guiding philosophy that I set the Dublin Web Summit up on was that suits pay and scruffy startups don’t. We have given out close to two hundred tickets at no cost and well below cost, all across Ireland. The were given out through universities, through the incubation centres, through Enterprise Ireland, and so on.

“The Dublin Web Summit has evolved. We have started the Spark of Genius competition which has given exposure to some fantastic Irish startups and provides the winners with at €30,000 worth of professional services. Legal fees and accountancy fees can sometimes be very high for startups relative to their budget.

“Also, VCs don’t always get to see what is going on in Ireland, so this time around we have Atomico, who have an investment fund in excess €100 million and are going to be holding an ‘open office’ throughout the day where people can come and pitch ideas and ask for advice.”

But there has also been a return to the roots of his original inspiration this time around as well.

“For a lot of people, listening to the speakers is the most important thing, and for others it is networking. It is going to be an amazing opportunity to mingle with six hundred of the key influencers in the whole tech eco-system in Ireland and another fifty or sixty international influencers.

“At the first summits, we gave loads of inspiration, and it’s fantastic to hear these guys’ stories, but people didn’t leave with a lot of practical advice. So, at this [Dublin] Web Summit there is going to be fifty master classes delivered over the course of the entire day. There are different streams so people can pick and choose. We have real entrepreneurs who have been successful giving some of those. A lot of them are Irish which is really important for local people to be able to relate to.

“There’s a digital media market one and a sales one and a not-for-profit one which is about fundraising and mobilising volunteers. There’s a full spectrum of insider ideas which we didn’t do before.”

Technology Voice will have a reporter present at the Dublin Web Summit on the Friday courtesy of a press pass. If there are any aspects of the event that you would like us to focus on or highlight. Let us know and we will see what we can do.

PicBounce: Fergus Hurley And Next Generation Media

In a previous article, “Fergus Hurley And The Silicon Valley State Of Mind“, we spoke with Fergus about what it was like to work in Silicon Valley and his experiences surrounding getting Clixtr up and going. His latest project is PicBounce, an iPhone app that allows you to take a picture and post it on Facebook or Twitter with just two taps on the device. In the first two weeks of its release, PicBounce has been downloaded over 200,000 times and over 100,000 pictures have been uploaded.

Fergus has been very busy recently, to say the least, but he very kindly shared with Technology Voice a small portion of his time to give us another update on what it is like being an entrepreneur doing business in Silicon Valley.

How did PicBounce come to be?

“One thing we learned from Clixtr is that we became experts in this whole area of photo sharing, real-time photo sharing more specifically, and more specifically than that, real-time photo sharing to social media services. There is just this need, which is very, very common, where people want to get their photos as fast and as simply as possible from their iPhone onto Facebook and Twitter. With PicBounce it is two taps to take a photo and get it on Facebook, that’s it.

“We’re pushing out the boundary here on the whole area of life-streaming. People don’t want to stream everything. For a long time, people thought that people were always going to stream their location. But people [prefer to] check in because they want to selectively share where they are. With this photo service, it is the same thing. People don’t want to be streaming all the time, but they want to be able to take photos and videos and be able to share them instantly and easily.”

There are over 300,000 apps in the iTunes store now. How do you compete with that?

“To be successful in the iPhone application store, you have to have a really simple, shareable use case or concept that gives instant gratification to the users. If you look at any of the top apps in the app store they all match that criteria. For most applications that are successful in the app store it only takes users two seconds to recognise the benefit of the product.

“You just need to catch people straight away and you offer them instant gratification. People download the application and they post their photo and they are like ‘cool, awesome, done’, and it is just two taps and they just use PicBounce in the future as their camera app on the iPhone.”

How important is it to be developing products such as Clixtr and PicBounce in the Valley?

“One of the advantages now at this point in where we are is that we are able to get meetings with people at Facebook, Google and Twitter very easily and be able to get talks going about potential partnerships down the road. I don’t have to get on a plane to be able to do that. I just e-mail one of them and say, ‘Hey, do you have time for lunch next week?’ By getting these meetings, you get to understand what their roadmaps are, what their goals are and how we could potentially work together.”

What have you learned so far?

“What we found is we have nearly twenty times more content is going to Facebook than Twitter. The overarching theme here is that the photo-sharing category and the media-sharing category is an industry that is just getting started in terms of the real-time stuff. There are huge businesses to be built there and that’s where we see the opportunity.

“We are just on the content creation side now where people are posting these photos. But content consumption is where the majority of the time is spent. There’s one Facebook creator for every hundred people who view it, if not more, most of the time. We need to build out the viewing experience. It’s about building the best products, so we need to build the best products for viewing this content as well.”

Where to from here?

“We have started off with this very simple little app. We wanted to build the minimum viable product to determine what people actually want to do in that market and how people are actually using the product.

“The roadmap is to build out a lot more functionality into the application itself. Being able to do video, being able to have multiple Facebook accounts and multiple Twitter accounts and being able to have other services such as Tumblr and Posterous.

“We have built this real-time media sharing platform, and so we consider ourselves a next-generation media company. Instead of being a newspaper or something like that, we are a media company in terms of showing people relevant content to them based on their social graph and building tools to enable that. PicBounce is a utility tool right now but there is a lot of interesting things we can do around that in terms of adding social relevancy to the application.”

Interview With John Hartnett: ITLG Brings Silicon Valley To Ireland

On November 17th, the third annual “Silicon Valley Comes to Ireland” event takes place. It is being presented by the Irish Technology Leadership Group (ITLG) in partnership with the University of Limerick, NUI Galway and Shannon Development.

ITLG are bringing more than twenty Silicon Valley technologists and venture capitalists (VCs) to engage with, advise, and possibly invest in Irish technology companies. Twelve of these companies have been selected to participate in private workshops with members from the delegation. Two of these companies will then be chosen to attend as award winners at the Stanford University/Irish Times Innovation Awards event next March in California.

ITLG was established in 2007, and consists of a number of high-level technology leaders who have ties to Ireland of one type or another. Its mission is to help Ireland address the challenges and take advantage of the potential that new technological opportunities present.

As well as hosting an annual awards ceremony to showcase Irish talent, ITLG has had contact with over 200 companies working in or intending to come to Silicon Valley. It facilitates opportunities for Irish technology companies coming to Silicon Valley through its network of more than 1,500 senior executives from companies like Cisco, Intel, Apple, Microsoft and Google. ITLG also helps by providing advice, opening doors in a way that otherwise would not be possible, and offering Irish CEOs and entrepreneurs the opportunity to connect with major customers.

John Hartnett is President and Founder of ITLG, and he spoke to Technology Voice about his perspective on the relationship between Ireland and Silicon Valley. One observation that he has is on the lack of any kind of serious large-scale Irish company in the Californian technology scene.

“Ireland doesn’t really kind of hit the radar screen in any significant way over here. Countries like Israel, for example, hit the radar screen. Countries like Taiwan hit the radar screen, as does China. But Ireland doesn’t hit the radar screen and it hasn’t.

“Ireland historically has been a low-cost, attractive place from a business tax perspective. Hence all the big multinational companies located themselves in Ireland. So it was kind of being seen as an outsource destination… but it hasn’t been seen as a country that is generating its own high-tech multinationals.”

A direct comparison can be made with Israel: a country of roughly a similar size in terms of population but producing very different results.

According to John, “Ireland today has about three companies on NASDAQ. Israel has 127 companies on NASDAQ. Israel has really been very bold in what they have done. Whereas Ireland [has been] weak, Israeli companies come to Silicon Valley to be successful. Irish companies are not coming as they should to Silicon Valley to do business.

“Also, Israel comes to Silicon Valley to get money. 40% of all the VC capital that’s invested across the United States is done here. Irish companies aren’t coming here to take advantage of that.”

“Ireland is investing something in the order of 1 to 1.5% in R&D as GDP. Israel has been investing 4.5 to 5% of GDP. That’s a massive chunk of money. Ireland has a commitment to the Smart Economy to bring that [investment] to 2.5% by 2015, and ultimately get it to 3% by 2020, but guess what, we need to be at that now – not in 2020.”

For technology companies, Silicon Valley is the centre of the universe. As John points out, there are three reasons to go there:

“One, you have access to the greatest collection of technology companies in the world. These companies are all over the world doing things with sales and operations. But you want to come to the heart of where they’re at, and that’s their headquarters.

“Number two, if you’re going to get investment, a smart investment from someone who is going to change your organisation and make you a true winner, these VCs, these angel groups are sitting here, not in Ireland.

“The third piece is access to talent. You have the world’s talent sitting here – guys that invented Google, guys that are running companies like Facebook or Twitter – if you want to build your organisation and build some key leadership where you might be weak.

“Areas in Ireland that I believe are very weak are in the areas of sales and marketing and CEO leadership. You always want to get the best of the best in your company.

“So the three reasons to come to Silicon Valley are access to customers, access to capital, access to talent. If you want to understand what is going to shape your company in the future, it is your people, your ability to get customers, and your ability to get funded, and that’s all sitting here.

“We don’t need to replicate Silicon Valley, we need to be part of Silicon Valley. We can spend a lot of our time thinking about how to become Silicon Valley. The best thing to do is get on board, get with it. Let’s be part of Silicon Valley.”

ITLG have set up an innovation centre right in the heart of Silicon Valley as a launch pad for Irish companies to set themselves up, and to make it easy for them to do the necessary networking and have the essential face-to-face meetings.

ITLG is determined to create the most powerful Irish network in the world. The Irish Diaspora is estimated to consist of over 40 million people. If this huge and powerful potential resource could be harnessed, organised and focused, then the door opens for all sorts of great and marvellous possibilities to occur.

Social Media Activism: Scientists Take to the Streets


Courtesy of ShaneMcC

Where Twitter really works is when people are on the ground witnessing events and sending out real-time texts and pictures. On Twitter it requires the physical presence of observers to make the news come alive and have meaning. Twitter coverage which is no more than the retweeting of the already processed news stream lacks immediacy, scope and depth.

The coverage of the #scienceisvital march in London last week was an example of Twitter being used at its very best. Lots of accounts from real people at an ongoing event. It was fascinating to observe how so many people recounted so many different aspects of the same event even though at times they could have well been standing beside each other. There is nothing like that sort of coverage anywhere else in the media and it is something that makes Twitter truly unique.

The campaign and march was conceived and organised by Dr. Jennifer Rohn, a cell biologist and editor of the online magazine LabLit.com which concerns itself with “the culture of science in fiction & fact.”

On the 8th of September, 2010, the UK Government Business Secretary Vince Cable gave a speech which revealed that there was a strategy to cut science funding.

Jennifer was not present when the speech was given but she heard about it from the buzz it was causing on Twitter. She says, “I got very angry and I dashed off a blog post in about five minutes, put that live. Then on Twitter I linked to my blog post and said, forget this let’s march on the streets.”

Original tweets – read from bottom up.

“There was loads of retweets and people were really excited about what I said. Within about an hour I had been contacted by Imran Khan who is the director for the Campaign for Science and Engineering. He said, “I’m with you. What can we do to help?” About another hour later I got contacted on Twitter by Evan Harris who is a former MP and science friendly politician. He said, “I’m willing to help.” And from that it completely spiraled out of control.”

Five days later the first in-person meeting took place at the Prince Arthur pub in Euston, London. There was just a few weeks to put together a campaign and organise a march to make sure the voices of scientists and interested parties are heard before the Government’s Comprehensive Spending Review on the 20th of October. That is when the announcement will be made as to exactly how much funding science in the UK will receive.

Jennifer describes how effective Social Media was in organizing the rally, “If it wasn’t for Twitter we would never have gotten almost 35,000 signatures on our petition. And that’s all down to, basically, famous people tweeting to their thousands of followers to sign the petition.

“People like Brian Cox and Dara O’Briain, We had a bit.ly link so everytime somebody famous retweeted we had a huge boost in people linking to our website and signing our petition. It was vital. I can’t imagine this would have ever happened without Twitter, well certainly not within three weeks or a month.”

Roughly 2,000 people turned up on the day of the march to publicly voice their concerns about the Government cutbacks. But thanks to mobile phones and Twitter thousands of others who were unable to attend could follow the proceedings via the use of the #scienceisvital hashtag.

One of the virtues that nearly all the social networks have is the ability transmit information extremely rapidly but there are times when even the most worthy of messages needs a helping hand.

“We actually had to work behind the scenes to get these people to retweet us.” Jennifer explains, “So one thing I would advise to those who want to change the world is sometimes you have to ring people up and say, “Listen, I’m going to tweet this at 5 o’clock can you be prepared to retweet it?

“You need a strategy. You can’t inundate your followers with Science is Vital 24/7. We were very careful to mix up the campaign stuff with fun stuff that had nothing to do with the campaign. We spread the load a bit. We had about twenty people who were strategically tweeting and we made sure they weren’t all doing it at once. We focused on events. OK, we’re at almost 10,000 signatures now let’s make a push. So we tried to do sort of news hooks…things that weren’t just over and over please support Science is Vital. You have to keep people’s interest going. So it’s important not to overload people with the same message.”

Despite all this effort the future for the UK Government’s investment in science looks grim. There is a hope that the work that Science is Vital has done in getting a traditionally reserved community involved in acts of social activism by means of Social Media may alleviate some of the worst of the cuts.

The Science is Vital petition asking Government to recognize that science is vital and to not reduce science funding is due to be handed into Downing Street on Thursday, October 14th. But the campaign will go on and you can find a guideline for writing a letter of protest to your MP on the website.

You can also engage with the campaign by joining the Science is Vital Facebook group which has over 5,000 members at the time of writing.

Dr. Jennifer Rohn is also a novelist. Her next book The Honest Look is due out in November.

She also has a blog called Mind the Gap