The Upside and Downside of Privacy on the Web

In many ways being on the internet is like living in a small village where everyone seems to know your business. This can be a good thing and a bad thing depending on the context.

In villages or provincial towns and cities like Galway or Dublin, the possibility of being able go about one’s activities with any degree of anonymity is a forlorn hope. To get lost in the crowd and be just another face, another digit on some statistical sheet, you have to live in one of the major metropolises of the world such as London, New York or Los Angeles.

You won’t disappear unless you want to and have some determination and guile but unless you do something exceptional, either good or bad, it is very unlikely that you will be noticed at all.

The upside is that since nobody knows — or cares — what you get up to, there is definitely more scope for expression and play than otherwise would be possible in the closed communities of ‘social tyranny’ that exist outside the metropolitan life.

The downside is that because nobody cares enough to watch out for us or protect us then behaviour of a purely self-indulgent nature can often end in catastrophe. One bad choice, even for the most self-disciplined of us, is often all it takes for a cascade of disastrous consequences to ensue.

Once the joys and whatnot of ‘Big City’ life have been explored and experienced there is very often a return to one’s roots. To the safe, the known and the predictable.

As large as the internet is and as large as the social networks are the majority of most people’s online social interactions are amongst just a few people. This is true even if the individual’s profile has large counts associated with it.

Although we live on the doorstep of the largest metropolis ever — the World Wide Web — most of us conduct our business in the parochial manner of small village-like tribes. This makes sense as we have lived in small groups congregating around camp fires at tribal gatherings for warmth and company, and coming to live to together in villages for mutual protection for most of humanities existence. Cities are a very recent blip in the historical timeline of humans.

Despite this history of close association many people want to apply metropolitan values of privacy, i.e. anonymous unless otherwise, to this blatantly parochial digital existence.

Certainly, here in Europe, we are protected by Article 8 of European Convention on Human Rights under which have a right to have our private and family life, our home and our correspondence respected.

Our medical records and our tax records, which our very existence in a civil society calls into being, are (I really hope) extremely well protected. Certainly, up until now breaches of police and military security have been down to rogue individuals that have been granted access to the system.

Whether online or out here in ‘real life’ these very vital aspects of our privacy are protected as much as we can reasonably hope.

But securing this sort of private data is not the same as the kind of thing as having a private life.

Whether we like it or not, we have no choice about the existence medical and tax records that concern themselves with fundamental aspects of our lives such as our health and financial affairs. The same for our entries on other public service databases. Alternatively, we do have a choice about what we do in online social space and who we share things with.

Although, not perfect and always with the need for practical, good sense, we can more or less control, to levels greater than just a year or two ago, how much of our online activities the people in our online village can monitor. A little bit of social media savviness can make life very difficult for the digital curtain twitchers.

The problem is that the behemoths of the internet such as Google, Facebook, etc., run on a couple of false assumptions that run contrary to how we have lived our lives for millennia.

In our daily lives we conduct our activities as individuals in a finely crafted, framework of social give and take. Our brains have evolved excellent stratagems for engaging, negotiating and coping with the nature and structure of a dynamic, constantly shifting set of behaviours and relationships.

In contrast to this, now natural for us, way of going about our lives, the first assumption regarding the handling of data that seems to be used by the large scale web operations is based on the Stewart Brand’s much misunderstood concept that information wants to be free.

This slogan seems to offer the philosophical justification for the seemingly constant and irritating violations of privacy and outright gaffes that beset the management of our accounts on the various social networks from time to time.

The second assumption follows on from the first and seems to be based on the false corollary that because we can access data easily we should share it easily too. Regardless of our preference on the matter.

This assumption fails to take into account that we, as humans, don’t share everything with everyone. For the most part, we are mostly very careful about what we share and with whom.

But what if all this data is aggregated and anonymized, what is the harm in that?

First of all, as you will probably be able to ascertain from this Google patent application, it is extremely hard to anonymize data. Once you know something, you know something.

The other argument appears to be that collecting our data and aggregating it is a good thing because it will results in a better, more enhanced online experience as the bushels of information gathered about us will be used to give us more of what we want. (As if that is a de facto good thing.)

Marketers and other interested parties can use the collected statistics generated from this collection exercise to improve their offerings for us. We are reassured that we should not worry as our data is anonymized and cannot be tracked back to us.

But this argument totally falls apart when I start receiving ads particularly targeted at me based on my online browsing activity. The opposing ideas that serve as a background to these two activities — anonymized data gathering and personal targeting — can’t possibly be true at the same time.

What is much worse is that when the data is gathered, if the Google Ads Preference page is anything to go by, it is wrong. Certainly in my case it is far from wholly right which amounts to the same thing.

This morning I went to Google Ads Preferences (you have to be signed into your own Google account) and discovered what Google thinks I like based on the sites I visit on the net.

Rather alarmingly, I signed out of my Google account in Safari to check the link and it still brought me back to the page with the above information on it. Google doesn’t seem to be giving me the basic respect of allowing me to completely sign out of its service — “Don’t be Evil.” Evil, perhaps not, but ill-mannered, certainly.

We all live in a village that is established in one social domain or another; work, home, online, etc. At the same time we can also all appreciate the wide range of good things that a major metropolis and its digital parallel, the World Wide Web, can offer.

However, this Big Brotherish attention to the minutiae of our online lives, whose only possible ultimate goal is to line shareholder’s pockets, is unnatural in terms of how humans really behave.

As well as being disrespectful, as regards people’s privacy, it is fundamentally misinformed through distortions in its own information gathering techniques and goodness knows what awfulness that will produce.

In the meantime, watch out for the curtain twitchers — they will always be with us.

NewsWhip: A Democratic Way of Tracking News

For Paul Quigley, news has always been his, “first love”. When he left a career as a lawyer in New York, he revisited his days of college journalism and started a satirical news site called NewsWhip.

However, he soon began to look beyond the traditional model of news distribution, and after meeting EasyDeals.ie co-founder Andrew Mullaney, the pair reinvented NewsWhip as a social news aggregator, which tracks the speed and volume at which stories are spread globally through social media, and lets the reader know what stories are piquing people’s interest around the world in real time.

“News was always distributed in a one to many model; one place producing the news and distributing it individually to everyone,” says Paul.

“How we look at it is before newspapers, people just told news to each other. It was kind of social activity rather than a product, and we’re we’re returning to that model again because people are increasingly discovering news socially and sharing that news socially through the web.”

While sites such as Google News do a similar job in aggregating news, what makes NewsWhip different is that it measures the interest in a news story in real-time, continuing to track the speed at which it is being shared on Facebook or Twitter.

“When a story gets published, that’s when we get to work. We detect about 60,000 new stories each day as they’re published and we see how fast they’re spreading at that point,” explains Paul.

“What we do differently to what other people are doing with social data, is we keep checking in again and again, so when a story is first published we check and see how many shares and tweets it gets in the first ten minutes, and then we go back again ten minutes later and check again and again.

“Because we know the difference in between each time that we check, and because we know the difference in time between each time we checked, we’re able to work out a speed as a rate of change.”

Users can also tailor their news experience by selecting news feeds from different countries or different news areas such as tech, politics, or sports.

“The key thing is really about the speed at which things are moving through the social web. That is what we’re trying to capture.”

The most exciting thing about NewsWhip according to Paul (and I’m inclined to agree) is that, “It’s like we’ve got a billion editors, so you get to see what the news would look like if everyone was the editor, so it’s very democratic in that way.”

By way of an illustration, Paul tells me that the fastest spreading international the previous day had been an article from U.S. tech site Slashdot about opposition to the Stop Online Piracy Act.

Other news organisations such as News Corp, for instance, have not granted this story such prominence in recent days. A site like NewsWipe tells us what everyone is reading, not what they are being told to read, taking a degree of power from media moguls.

NewsWhip was a participant in the NDRC’s LaunchPad programme last year, and the experience was an extremely positive one for Paul, “I can’t speak highly enough of it.”

This month the he and Andrew have moved into Dogpatch Labs’ European offices in Dublin, a place he likens to “Willy Wonka’s factory.”

“Being in Launchpad was really good for focus and mentoring, and now we’ve moved along, we’re here in a place where there’s a golf-putting green and a pool table and a fridge of beer.

“While we’re generally too busy to enjoy those things, the fact that they’re there makes us really happy.”

The main benefit of both these programmes seems to have been the presence of other startups to bounce ideas off.

“We face common problems as startups, so I’d be a big advocate of the open, shared space, whether it’s LaunchPad or Dogpatch or any of the other accelerator programmes.”

The next move for NewsWipe is to develop its range of products further. Plans are in the pipeline for introducing a service for media organisations that will allow them to track what stories are becoming popular as well as an email alert service for the public which will allow them to keep track of what news story is trending in their chosen topic.

Digital Jet: A One-stop Shop for Consumer Content

A new multi-channel consumer service based in Dublin providing music, movies, books and more is set to go live this year with the aim of taking on established giants like iTunes, Netflix and Amazon.

This service will operate under the consumer brand ‘Digital Jet’ and will sell streamed or downloaded content to users for a subscription or pay per download fee. It will initially operate online and on mobile devices with a digital television service also being planned for the future.

Digital Jet CEO Niall O’Neill has previously used the expression creating a ‘media buffet’ to describe what the company hopes to achieve.

“What we’re trying to do is take the best of what’s available in technology and the best of what’s available in content and facilitate the consumer deciding what content they want and how they want to engage with it.”

According to Niall, one of the unique features of Digital Jet compared to digital media players like iTunes is that it will be available to use on any device regardless of brand.

“That’s one of the key elements of our service. Our business is about facilitating the end user. I’m a big Apple fan but I also love what’s happening in the Android market so our business is focused on the content and because it’s content focused the platform is irrelevant.”

The Dublin-based company currently employs 10 people and has plans to expand this to 80 in the next three years. It just opened a second office in Newry, County Down and expects to open a Silicon Valley office in February. The service will begin closed testing shortly with the aim of launching publically in the summer.

Niall describes the venture as “ambitious” and recognises the difficulties the new brand will face entering into a market dominated by existing giants.

“There are huge challenges to going into the market and some of the biggest ones for us are getting the right team and being able to deliver the same level of quality of service and meet consumer expectations.”

Despite this, he believes Digital Jet has spotted a gap for consumers. Although US-based online film and TV streaming service Netflix has recently entered the Irish and UK market Niall thinks the brand has yet to “capture the consumer imagination” in Europe. On Apple, he points out that if you’re not an Apple user then you can’t access their services. For Amazon, he views the company as “efficient” but not an “exciting brand.”

He sees Digital Jet as providing one complete package that is attractive to the consumer. “A lot of the younger generation are really tech-savvy and they know where to get content but the majority of users are not that tech-savvy and it’s a big challenge for them the find the types of content they want and there are only a few sources available.

“What we’re trying to do is something broader. We want something that is fun, exciting, sexy and that gives a bit of a wow factor.”

Netflix is currently under pressure in Ireland following its launch as many consumers view its catalogue as outdated.

What steps is Niall taking to avoid this happening with Digital Jet?

“There are limitations and restrictions. A lot of the deals that we have on the table and that we have concluded have very exciting products and I think it’s a combination of mixing the new with the old. Our pockets aren’t as deep as the other players but I think we’re equally as creative in what we do and how we’re going to present it.”

A conversation about a new online consumer service selling music and movies will invariably turn to the toughest challenge facing those industries: piracy. Digital Jet not only aims to drive value back to the copyright owners but plans to tackle the problems piracy causes for consumers, something that can be overlooked.

Niall explains, “About 70% or 80% of pirate sites are actually paid sites. There are people out there pirating content but paying to do it. The real issue is a supply and demand one and people will pay for content if you give them the right content at the right price.”

Ultimately, Niall believes that if Digital Jet delivers what it has currently planned on paper, “It’s going to blow people away.” His faith is shared by the funding world and the company has been offered its full funding of €5 million by a US-based investor and is considering this along with a number of other opportunities.

A New Adventure in Cloud Computing

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Arthur C. Clarke, Profiles of The Future

Through my association with Technology Voice and John Breslin a lot of my attention over recent years has been drawn to the promise that cloud computing holds. Ireland for geographic and meteorological reasons is developing enormous server hosting facilities for cloud services with Microsoft, in particular, leading the way.

Up until now it has all been rather academic. Most cloud services work for me the way my web hosting service or remoter server — as information to be accessed from my device or from some other remote terminal. Most of the time I blithely interact with that information and it is only when I lack wireless access do I really have to contemplate that all that information is one step removed from my direct manipulation.

This week I upgraded to OS X Lion. It came out at the beginning of last summer and having been caught out before by diving in immediately and downloading new software releases and ending up in early adopter hell — A place where everything has great promise but doesn’t really work — I thought I would wait a while and see what the reports were like from the front line.

I was pleased I did because the upgrade broke a good few programs that I have come to rely on. But after six months I decided it was finally time to make my move.

This isn’t a review of OS X Lion except to say one thing: it seems that an overwhelming amount of criticism of the system seems to have come from people who want something new and different but still want things to be familiar and samey.

I would say that 90% of the complaints come from people who didn’t have the gumption or wit to spend a bit of time in the settings to figure out how things really worked and then customize the command and control processes for themselves.

But so much for those who employ the keyboard first, think later strategy.

(Not that I don’t have my own gripes. Whoever decided to remove the Save as… function in Preview is a &^%*. And no, natural scrolling isn’t natural at all. Logical — yes, natural — afraid not.)

I spent a little time setting up the system just-so for myself and then went for a walk by the beach. A bitingly cold walk along the Atlantic shore is a remarkably effective method for cleaning the cobwebs from the brain — highly recommended.

It was beautiful in the sunshine.

After years spent fiddling with professional camera equipment I have come to love smartphone cameras. Getting the picture is the only real point of photography and these little gadgets really do capture help me capture moments that would have been otherwise lost to faffing about.

So, I took a few snaps of the low-hanging, winter sun over the hills of Clare and tried to capture how its reflection shimmered and glowed on the surface of the sea in Galway Bay.

When I returned home I was absolutely delighted to find that the pictures, through the magic of Photostream, were already available on my computer and the iPad.

I had played with Photostream while setting the system up that morning and hadn’t seen the point but now I did—I am now hosting myself across my devices.

I know that this has been possible for a long time. I use Dropbox and Google Docs for keeping tabs on documents that are being updated by myself and others. But the difference here is the ‘seamlessness’ of the experience. I now have a system that works for me rather than for me having to make work.

I think this ease, which is akin to the frictionless experience they are striving for at Facebook but is definitely not the same, takes us one step closer to Arthur C. Clarke’s vision of the future.

More and more of us have more than one computer with wireless access (I include smartphones here,) but our use is compartmentalized. We have tended to use these devices in a manner dictated by their onboard capability.cc

With the inevitable advent of cloud computing we have come to a key stage in our journey along the digital highway. Or, a major ‘strategic inflection point‘ as Andy Grove would say. How information is handled is now becoming independent, to a greater and greater extent, of the tools that we use for processing it.

With my devices interlinked in this manner my only consideration now is their form, pocket-sized, bag-sized, desk-sized etc., and their performance.

Apart from releasing us from sync-slavery, it frees up designers and engineers to do new and different things with our devices and be able to take advantage of the ongoing unshackling process that cloud computing represents.

Our devices become access points to our digital lives. But along with this decentralization of our information could there be concurrent decentralizaton of our own lives?

Our information is no longer in orbit around us. Technically, we may be nodes in the system but we are no longer geocentric bodies somehow different distinct from the information we access and produce.

Because of cloud computing we now exist in a continuum of information availability, where in a real as well as a philosophical sense, it is going to be harder to tell where we end and information begins and vice versa.

Kernel Capital Facilitates Zolk C Expansion into North American Market

Zolk C, a Waterford based company specializes in using innovative technology to enhance the experience of visitors at tourist sites and museum exhibitions, has just received €500,000 in new investment from the Bank of Ireland Seed and Early Stage Equity Fund which is managed by Kernel Capital.

Paul Savage, the Managing Director of Zolk C, explains what the company intends to do with the money, “Because we are primarily export focused we are not quite in as difficult circumstances as others. We have been able to meet all our commercial targets and have grown the company over the last few years.

“We really have developed in the UK and Irish market since 2007 and we are trying to enter the North American market at the moment.

“We have done research on this over the last eighteen months and we have realized that we would need to have substantially more resources than we now have. We couldn’t organically grow into the North American market. We needed to get investment to be able to make that jump.”

Zolk C’s technological solutions have been used by over half a million visitors at sites ranging from the Culloden Battlefield Guide in Scotland to the Dunbrody Famine Ship in New Ross. They have just been awarded a contract by Waterford City Council to provide a handheld multimedia interpretation of the historic ‘Viking Triangle’ quarter.

At the Saint Patrick Centre in Downpatrick, Paul says that Zolk C, “Worked on a tour for the visitor’s centre. The information is displayed over a number of large screens. Using our hand held technology we can intelligently synchronize the information available to the visitor according to where they are on the tour. Also, people are able to enjoy the presentations in their own language as they walk around.”

Zolk C makes much use of the research and development being done on pervasive technologies taking place at the TSSG. (They are both based on campus at the Waterford Institute of Technology.) Pervasive technology allows data services to be seamlessly available anywhere at anytime and in any format.

Through a combination of sensors in the environment and the capabilities of modern hand-held devices to generate and be tagged by geo-location data, audio and video information can be presented to the visitor at the appropriate point on their tour of the exhibit. They are always in a position to access the most relevant and pertinent information.

Not only does it enhance the visitors enjoyment of the site or exhibition but it returns vital information to the site owners and managers about how the visitors are interacting with what is on show.

Through analysis of how visitors pass through the system and use the devices it is possible to collect data on what they find interesting and what they don’t. For example, being able to note when people press stop on their video presentations and the frequency that occurs, information can be derived as to how compelling that particular item may or may not be.

The technology allows almost endless fine tuning by the operators of the site to improve their presentations to create a more engaging story for the visitor and enhance their experience as much as possible.

Zolk C’s ability to take cutting edge Irish research and adapt it into a commercial product suitable for export also acts as a boost to the economy. They have shown themselves to be a worthwhile business for investment and that leads the way for the possibility of more money to be made available for other Irish innovation companies.

The activities of companies like Zolk C and can only increase confidence in the capabilities of Irish companies to adapt academic research for commercial purposes and develop its potential market value.

Donal Duffy, Head of Enterprise Ireland Relations at the Bank of Ireland commenting on this investment said, “Supporting sustainable businesses like Zolk C in the context of a challenging market enables these companies to grow, recruit and realise their long term strategic ambitions which is critical for the company and contributes to Ireland’s recovery.”

FeedHenry: Cloud Based Mobile Application System

Any organisation, large or small, has to deal with the management, coordination and updating of numerous applications on a myriad of platforms. Not only does this involve a great many hours of monitoring and maintenance which is costly enough but the inherent insecurity of handling data in this manner can lead to catastrophic consequences should confidential information and data vital to secure operation of the system be mishandled.

A solution to this problem would be a single source code base which developers and client alike can work with and on. It would be a single cross-platform development environment thus voiding the need to write and update their app a multiplicity of times for multiple platforms.

FeedHenry based in Waterford and with offices in Massachusetts, USA, has just such a solution with its Mobile Application Platform. Apps can now be developed using standard web technologies such as HTML5, JavaScript and CSS. A file is then generated which can be downloaded in the appropriate format for the various operating systems and devices.

Cathal McGloin CEO of FeedHenry, says that, “Demand for mobile application development and management solutions has exploded as businesses of all types and sizes recognize the importance of mobile apps in driving business success.”

Organizations are now starting to realise that it is both possible and advantageous to build their own apps for its own employees and clients that could work along the lines of something like the Apple’s iTunes store.

FeedHenry already has over 2,000 customers (including developers) and just recently they announced an exclusive partnership with Telefónica Digital — one of the top five telecommunications companies in the world which has itself, almost 300 million customers.

FeedHenry have come a long way since our first interview with them just under a year ago. There are at present 30 employees and that is expected to grow to between 50 and 55 over the course of this year. According to Cathal, “We see quite a bit of growth this year. We plan to increase our revenues by 3x to 4x over last year.”

There are also moves underway to expand into the American market. “In the US we have launched an offering to the healthcare sector in the form of a compliance solution. That means the data sits encrypted in the cloud itself as opposed to being in a data compliant data-centre.

“That has been very well-received. We have a number of hospital organizations, insurance providers building app solutions today. We are also working with some of the cloud technology vendors to partner with them so they can bring our solution to market.”

FeedHenry has emerged from of one of Ireland’s most successful research facilities. The original research was done at ArcLabs Research & Innovation Centre, part of the Waterford Institute of Technology and also home to the TSSG. Cathal says that, “The people who came with us from the research centre have been amazing. They know their subject inside out.”

But he also observes that good ideas are not enough by themselves, “The research is all about the ideas but it is ultimately about how you apply them — then you need to start dealing with business problems. As a research project it was a cloud-based delivery service that we then applied to the mobile world.”

There is more to be heard from FeedHenry shortly. At the upcoming NodeJam in San Francisco. FeedHenry’s CTO, Mícheál  Ó Foghlú, will be speaking and the intention at the conference is to release new code which they will then be open sourcing.

Online Marketing Galway: A Community Resource

“Because the purpose of business is to create a customer, the business enterprise has two — and only two — basic functions: marketing and innovation. Marketing and innovation produce results; all the rest are costs. Marketing is the distinguishing, unique function of the business.”Peter Drucker

If we leave innovation aside for the purposes of this article it is clear that a business lives or dies on its ability to create customers and make a profit from that activity. Since this is so apparently the case then a very important question arises: If marketing is so crucial to the existence of a business then why do so many businesses fail to give it the attention it deserves?

We mostly write about tech companies which are largely led by those trained in one or more of the engineering disciplines or have either a computer science or computer programming background. Most of these people have been trained and are equipped with mindsets that centre around incremental, iterative, step by step, logical and quantifiable processes.

Marketing, looked at from the angle of the tech-entrepreneur, can seem like a a quilted tapestry of guess work, exhortations and mysterious incantations that are conspicuously lacking in anything substantive, either conceptually or physically, to grab on to and manipulate in any useful way.

Marketers, in too many cases, don’t help themselves very much by seeming to speak fluent jargon and making far too free and liberal use of the all-time mass murderer of meaning – bizspeak.

What is a business owner to do? Huge amounts of effort and time and have gone into innovating and developing a product but they still have to find an efficient way to get their product into the hands of a paying customer.

Many small businesses and startups, with their restricted budgets, choose to run counter to Drucker’s dictum in viewing marketing as a cost and a liability rather than an essential and core part of the business process.

However, help may be at hand. A new initiative to help inform businesses about marketing and the processes involved has just been started by Maricka Keogh Burke with the assistance of Eimear O’Brien.

They have setup Online Marketing Galway (OMG.) Maricka says her objective is to gather, “…a group of people with similar interests within the West of Ireland and Galway area for online marketing.

Maricka is an Ex-Googler who now works in Galway as a Senior Online Marketing Executive with a local company. She started OMG as she wanted a place, “Where we can share online knowledge.

“I would love to meet more people who are involved with the mobile side of things. I would love to meet more people with the email side of things as well. I see online marketing as an umbrella and there are so many segments underneath that.

“The more and more people get involved, the more and more we can share and take advantage of each other’s knowledge (without giving away competitive information.”)

There are a great many small businesses in the Galway area operating in the conventional consumer areas as well as tech. Most have little or no marketing experience nor do they have easy access to trusted sources for information on strategy and tactics. This leaves them in a postion where their only option is to react to opportunities and challenges on an ad hoc basis. This is not a tenable way of doing business over the medium or long term.

Maricka’s solution for these companies lies in the answer to the question, “Why not have a place they can come to?”

In the process they will inevitably engage with some of the fundamental preconceptions that many have about marketing.

“People think we do very fluffy work but the online side of marketing is very analytical. What I work with is hard stats and we make decisions based on those stats.

“Marketing is about promoting awareness of the company but there’s no point in having a brilliant website, absolutely stunning ads and everything that goes along with it if the product isn’t great.”

OMG offers the opportunity for users and contributors to gain more knowledge which they will be able to apply to their own circumstances. According to Maricka, OMG, “…is a place to share your experiences. It is a place where if you are keeping up to date with online marketing.

“My ideal scenario is that I’d love to get someone involved in every section [of the site.] They can show how good they are. They can show their expertise. They can promote their own businesses as well but only if they do something good for community.”

Although OMG and Maricka are Galway based, through the magic of the internet people can come share and contribute from wherever they maybe. They can do so by following these links:

Main site: Online Marketing Galway
Facebook: Online Marketing in Galway
Linkedin: Online Marketing in Galway