Possibility, Opportunity and Being Better

Sir Jonathan Ive makes an incredibly important distinction between the words better and different in this interview in the London Evening Standard. By having done something better, in the sense that he uses it, then something new has been created.

Whether ‘better’ takes the form of an incremental improvement or results in revolutionary change something new and different now exists. However, the resulting consequences from having done something better are independent of the thinking and work that goes into the improvement. New and different are the result of doing something better and not the other way around.

Contrast this with so many tech startup people whose starting point for innovation begins with a sentence that goes something like,“Let’s do something that will change the world.” Or,“Let’s do something new and different.” Admirable sentiments but simply the wrong place to start.

It’s easy to see how people can put the cart before the horse. Entrepreneurs are constantly being told to, ‘find a need and fill it,’ ‘anticipate the next new big thing,’’create a unique market niche,’ ‘differentiate their offering’ and so on, ad nauseum. It is jargon masquerading as reality.

There is the fear that if entrepreneurs don’t show potential investors something brilliantly original with an astounding USP they will not get funded. In turn, both believe that the only way to distinguish themselves in the market-place and attract customers is to pass off novelty as being the same thing as creativity and innovation.

Doing something new purely for the sake of doing something new doesn’t work. Doing something better is what matters. There were social networks aplenty before Facebook but they did it better. It is not a matter of personal opinion, almost a billion people attest to it every day with the use of their most precious commodity — their time.

Then there are variations on a theme. Over the last couple of years I have heard hundreds of elevator pitches. Nearly all of them describe the proposed service or product as being like this or like that or as a hybrid of this and that. Only a very few of them proclaimed that they were going to do something better than anything that has gone before.

Underpinning the idea of making something better are possibility and opportunity. In Ireland the primary source of possibility lies in the creative imagination and vision of our entrepreneurs and the opportunity lies in the world-class research that is coming out of Irish universities.

The essential base for innovation and growth is here but the thinking needs to shift from being different for its own sake to being different because things are being done better at every level than anyone else and that makes us better competitors in the global market.

Every innovation that we produce here is equal to any innovation produced anywhere else. That is the true nature of the global village of technology, specifically in the form of the internet, has brought us. There is no longer a parochial, provincial backwater to hide in where having limited ambition can be seen as a ‘good thing.’

My, entirely, personal view for why Irish technologists and entrepreneurs do not step up and take the lead is simply cowardice. Not only is it unreal or misguided to have one’s ambition be limited to being the number one purveyor of a given product in Ireland (or even Europe) it is also cowardly. In the same way doing something ‘new’ and ‘different’ is a cowardly way out of facing the real opportunities and challenges that we have in front of us.

Doing something better than anyone else means being the best. It is an act of leadership and a defiance to the cloying norms of social tyranny that work to confine and stymie initiative, progress and original thinking.

Leading an innovative startup that has the courage to be the best in the world by using the possibilities of opportunity to things better than anyone else is the purest and loneliest kind of leadership there is.There is no politicking and backhanding one’s way to positions of power that you find in the power structures of corporations and government. You are judged by one thing alone — Is what you are doing or what you have better than anything else that is out there?

Be brave, be better, be the best. If nothing else, it’s better than the alternative.

Loc8 Code Takes Key Mainstream Role

In all of Ireland’s local authority areas there are emergency plans available to be immediately implemented should disasters happen. These incidents can take place at airports, military establishments, factories and other industrial sites. Also, many of the facilities would have their own crisis management protocols. The procedures involved for taking control of these incidents would be well-documented and in many cases well-rehearsed.

The Irish Government’s 2008 A Framework for Major Emergency Management has this definition for a major crisis:

“A Major Emergency is any event which, usually with little or no warning, causes or threatens death or injury, serious disruption of essential services or damage to property, the environment or infrastructure beyond the normal capabilities of the principal emergency services in the area in which the event occurs, and requires the activation of specific additional procedures and the mobilisation of additional resources to ensure an effective, co-ordinated response.”

An Garda Siochána, the Health Service Executive (HSE) and the various local authorities are the relevant bodies responsible for the handling of emergency situations. According to the Office of Emergency Planning any of the following scenarios could be considered a major emergency:

  • Severe weather
  • Flooding
  • Chemical spills
  • Transport accidents (air, sea, rail, road)
  • Accidents at sea
  • Major pollution incidents at sea
  • Bomb explosions / suspicious packages
  • Nuclear incident
  • Influenza pandemic
  • Animal disease outbreak

The two key aspects in dealing with any emergency are a coordinated response from the relevant services and rapid access to the area concerned.

However, rapid access depends on specific knowledge on where an incident is taking place and how to get there. At large facilities the main entrance may not be the best place to access a site. This can be either because of blockage caused by traffic or its remoteness from the epicentre of an incident. At a very large disaster many of the responders would, by necessity, come from farther afield and therefore would have little or no local knowledge to aid them with their navigation.

Compounding this issue is that Ireland is bereft of any kind of post code or zip code system apart from few numbered postal districts in Dublin and Cork. Other than using map coordinates there is no national, standardized method of identifying a given property or location.

To address the issue of being able to send first response teams effectively and efficiently to specific geographical location the HSE has incorporated Loc8 Code data into the emergency response plans for Wexford, Waterford, Cork, Kerry and Limerick.

Loc8 Codes not only identify a given property like a regular post code but are accurate enough to identify given points of a property such as alternative entrances. They can also specifically identify geo-locations that would be used in emergency situations such as standby sites for relief vehicles and personnel.

According to Gary Delaney, CEO of Loc8 Code, “When a plan is activated for a particular site. It is usually first responders, such as the fire service, Gardai and ambulances that go straight to the site. In going to a site they may be directed to a back entrance as the front entrance is blocked up so now all those entrances would have Loc8 Codes on them.

“To minimize disruption around the site of a disaster Gardai can be directed to a location with a specific Loc8 Code to manage traffic flows.

“The emergency services are fitted with satnavs and they just punch in the Loc8 Codes and go straight there. The crisis managers don’t have to give complicated instructions to the emergency services to make sure that they go to the correctly specified place.”

“Loc8 Code can do the same thing as post code but can do a lot extra. Ring buoys, standby emergency areas, back and side entrances to facilities are not property.

“Supported by the Irish Water Safety Council we are now starting to put Loc8 Codes on ring buoys for life-saving along waterways.”

For Gary, “It is very significant that the HSE is using Loc8 Codes. A government agency has accepted Loc8 Code as a robust service.”

Gary developed the idea for Loc8 and all the supporting technologies have been developed in-house.

“That was all done with the support of Enterprise Ireland and everything to do with Loc8 Code is our own IP.”

There is no cost for creating your own Loc8 Code for a given location but for larger organizations who need a different kind of support a licence fee is charged. Loc8 Code also makes money from a point of sale system that enables the accurate delivery of parcels and goods.

The opportunity presently exists for Loc8 Code to be taken up and used for the identification of locations in Ireland as the tendering process for a post code system has been in abeyance for over a year since the last election. To be able to direct emergency responders to a given site with the accuracy and lack of ambiguity that Loc8 offers would certainly be worth considering for nationwide application given the amount of lives that could be saved by such a system.

Advertising, Google and the Internet

It is great to have a wonderful idea for an app or a site that others would want to engage with and benefit from in some way by using it. But apart from direct patronage, either personal or via foundations and suchlike, there are only four ways of monetizing an app or a web-based business

  • Sponsorship: Payments are made over an agreed period of time based on the past, present and expected performance of the site or app according to an agreed set of criteria. Sponsorship often involves preferential positioning of the sponsor’s brand.
  • Sales: The site or app is funded from a portion of the profits generated.
  • Subscription: Charging a fee to access the content of a site.
  • Advertising: Sites or apps sell a portion of their screen space in order to catch the ‘eyeballs’ of visitors.

Out of these three by far the biggest source of cash for a site or an app is advertising. In the first half of 2011 ad revenues in the United States were almost $15 billion.

Of course, increase spend in one area can mean reduced spend in another. It is possible in 2012 that online ad spend will supersede print.

The big area of spending for advertisers is still television. Both in the UK,(£4.36bn) and the US, ( Roughly, $70bn.)

With the inevitable arrival widespread internet TV use it may no longer be possible to make a valid distinction between the two.

If we were to invert the situation and have no online advertising what would we have on the internet? Very little in my view. All the big social networking sites would have to charge and other services which we view as free would have to be paid for directly. Either through subscriptions or donations. (An interesting question is would Facebook et al have been anything like as successful if usage fees were attached?) All business sites are brochures and while acting as portals to their content they would still have to generate a profit somewhere down the line to make it worthwhile.

It does not take much imagination to see that without advertising the internet would be nothing like as useful, powerful or prevalent as it now is.

Advertising is a necessary function of internet activity and is here to stay but it does not happen by itself. Somebody has to pull the levers behind the curtain.

According to a report released at the end of last year Google controls 44% of global ad spend on the internet.

The amorphous and decentralized qualities of the net are its two most attractive aspects — for me anyway. But if advertising is absolutely key to the economic validity of the web and 44% of that is controlled by one company then we have something that is neither amorphous or decentralized.

There is simply have to much control of an extremely important part of our lives in the hands of one company.

Oddsfutures: Wagering on the Zeitgeist

It is one thing to bet on horses, or whatever else that may take one’s fancy, but it is a somewhat different thing to bet on those bets. In the former, the money is wagered against a given set of odds and that money is either returned as part of the winnings or is lost forever. The bet itself has no value outside of the predicted outcome.

In the latter, the speculation takes place around the nature of the betting activity itself. As information and mood changes in the betting market, injuries, jockey changes and so on, the odds shift. The individual bets have been commoditized and form a market that can be represented by an index in which people can now wager on whether the odds will get better or worse and it now becomes possible to buy or sell those predictions.

As betting activities become a market in themselves it becomes possible to profit from forecasting market activity rather than forecasting a winner. Taking positions on these possible outcomes allows for a number of very important things to happen.

As you are speculating on a change in the market rather than the outcome of a given race then because values tend to change over time the value of a given wager will also change. This allows for the possibility of being able to buy and sell your position according to the specific terms of the market you are on and not be stuck with a bet on a horse, or whatever, which has no transferable value once the money has been laid down.

Since the wagers in this system have inherent value and can be transferred by buying or selling then some sort of mechanism is needed to manage the transactions. This is where Oddsfutures comes into action.

“CEO, Marc Butterly, along with his brother and CTO, Andrew have created an exchange where these sort of speculative transactions can take place.

Marc explains the genesis of Oddsfutures, “We’d seen the direction of the online Forex and financial spread-betting business. We didn’t think there was a lot of product innovation there. We saw that the betting industry is ripe for the opportunity to use a new product like this.”

Customers pick the direction that the market is going to go, “That the price of a given horse or team is going to go. If they think the price will contract they will buy it and if they think it will ‘drift out,’ in odds speak, they sell the price.

If you think a horse is going to drift out, i.e., it’s going to be less favoured in the market then the market will put up the potential return for a bet on that horse and you sell it. If the market’s perceptions of its chances of winning increase then you buy it. You profit from forecasting market activity rather than forecasting a winner.

“Effectively, you are speculating on an index so it is basically a zeitgeist punt. ‘Do you think the zeitgeist is right or wrong? Which way do think it is going to go?’ It is for anyone who has an opinion about value in sports or in sports markets.”

An important aspect for the future growth of Oddsfutures is that bets are seen as an underlying commodity like coffee or wheat. Therefore, Oddsfutures are providing a commodity trading service in a derivatives market which is not seen by the relevant U.S. authorities as gambling.

This allows for a wider geographical set of clientele, “We are not classed as gaming so can take American customers. In the UK and Ireland we would have people who were trading in exchanges already and are looking at it as a hedging instrument. But it’s also for informed sources on a given sport who already use some of the betting sites.”

Marc says users have trebled since last November but it has taken some time to reach this point. “It took us about a year and a half to build it. We’re fortunate that we have a strong CTO in my brother Andrew. It took a while to get things right.

“We have added an API recently which allows other people to develop trading platforms on top of our exchange. I’d say that within two months we would see a new generation of API driven products.”

A future hope is that Oddsfutures will end up being the reference index for pricing.

According to Marc, “That’s what happens when futures markets are successful. People go to them to look at what the prices might be because that is where the early money is and where the smart money would go.”

Home Page picture: Racehorses by Degas

Happy Pi Day

Happy Pi Day

As well being the birthday of Albert Einstein, the 14th of March also happens to be Pi Day. Although not as significant or important (or as useful) as Towel Day which follows a mere 72 days later on May 25, we feel at TechVo that we should do our best to commemorate the occasion.

Pi is determined by a circle’s circumference beiing divided by its diameter. It does not matter how large the circle is so we have a resulting constant which denotes the ratio between the diameter and the circumference as always being approximately 3.14. Which so happens to be today’s date. (If you are in North America.) Pi Day officially begins at 1.59pm.

In the spirit of Brainpickings and OpenCulture we have decided to curate some items available on the web that shows some of the practical utility and cultural importance of pi.

That the whole universe is constructed in such a way that a simple relationship between a shape and one its mathematical properties can be so powerful and important is a source of fascination and wonder. Even if you don’t care for the math, the fact that these constants exist and that we can use them to further our own understanding of the world around us is something to celebrate.

The symbol for pi comes from the Greek word for periphery
and nothing to do with
depicting and symbolising parts of Stonehenge.

In the image at the top of the page we have the first 1,000 digits of pi. As pi is an irrational number it produces a non repeating pattern of digits. Do they stretch on to infinity?

No one knows. Alexander Yee and Shgeru Kondo have processed pi to 10 trillion places and no pattern has been discovered. Once a pattern occurs pi becomes finite which should make things interesting in a philosophical sense.

If all mathematical constants such as pi could be absolutely determined then there would be no way to prove the existence of infinity. But anything finite has an edge so what do we edge onto?

On a lighter note,my favourite trip around pi:

This was all done with dominos which places it under firmly under the heading of something to do while waiting for the sun to come out:

We were going to add a musical section but it was hard to pick a winner. Although many were clever they tended to reflect the composer’s own musical milieu.

At the Pi10k you can select your own notes and a key to play them in. An algorithm will map your selection to the number pi up to 10,000 digits. Even within the limits of the program it is hard not to be hypnotized by the results.

If this is the first you have heard of Pi Day then your time available for celebrating the day may be confined to some minor socializing this evening. But don’t despair — Towel Day — a global event you can really look forward to and participate in, is only 72 days away so you might just want to prepare yourself properly (get a new towel) and conserve your energy for that particular shindig.

Social Software Infiltrating Consumer Electronics

There’s been an explosion in terms of the number of people using social software over the past five years. Social software allows people to connect, communicate and collaborate over the Internet. Facebook and Twitter are prime examples, but there are lots of other social software platforms including forums like boards.ie, blogs and wikis. Now social software is starting to infiltrate consumer electronics.

We’ve recently seen Facebook’s move from being mainly used by people on personal computers to becoming huge on mobiles – half a billion people now use Facebook on mobile devices (that’s 60% of all Facebook users). But as people want to keep up-to-date with what their friends are up to, we may notice Facebook, Twitter and other networks starting to pervade our lives even more through ‘traditional’ devices like TVs and radios and new gadgets on what is termed the ‘Internet of Things’.

This is starting to happen already. Samsung’s Smart TV system allows you to update your Facebook or Twitter status using a TV remote. You can also view updates from your contacts, while watching TV at the same time. As more and more people watch TV shows through their computer, many TV manufacturers are aiming to make the traditional TV set more interactive and interesting by integrating a wide range of apps, not just social networking add-ons, but social communications and video apps including Skype and YouTube.

Applications like Zite, Flipboard and StreamGlider on tablets already create tailor-made magazines of news content based on your social network account and what you like. In the future, on our radios, we can imagine no longer being limited to a selection of news and songs from a fixed set of radio stations, but rather having our own personalised radio channels where the content comes from the feeds we have on Facebook or Twitter. This would include audio renderings (text-to-speech) of the top news articles our friends are reading, a selection of real-time status updates about friends’ activities, or just songs that our contacts are listening to.

Although they’ve been around for a few years, the cute-looking rabbit-shaped device called Karotz (from Violet) was a big media hit at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show. Karotz is a WiFi-enabled device that can sit in your kitchen or office and read out tweets or status updates through the swipe of an RFID (radio frequency ID) tag or by using its speech recognition system. Just say “Facebook” or “Twitter” and it will read out a selection of the latest updates from your friends, or private messages from your followers. But you can also send updates from a Karotz to your social network of choice, for example, by taking photos from its built-in camera using a pre-specified voice command.

At DERI in NUI Galway, “Semantic Web” research looks at how the content from various social software platforms like social networks, blogs or wikis can be defined and linked so that it can be better utilised by computers and made more meaningful for end-user consumption. But DERI is also carrying out research into sensor networks and the “Internet of Things”, such that information relevant to a particular context can be presented to us through the various devices we use in different places (work, home, holidays, etc.). I would expect that as the web develops further, these technologies will become more user friendly and will be more pervasive in our lives.

Peracton: A Smart Search for Investments

Trading in stocks and financial markets can be a complicated process. A cursory glance at the news at any time over the last five years would tell you that even the so-called experts have a tendency to get it wrong more often than not.

Laurentiu Vasiliu, a researcher at the Digital Enterprise Research Institute (DERI), at NUI Galway, founded Peracton to help both individuals and corporate multinationals negotiate the complicated and volatile stock markets.

Laurentiu was not initially motivated by any desire to enter the financial sector, though. Rather, he was led to the markets by his team at DERI’s research, which lent itself particularly well to the complexity of financial investing.

“We initially started our research looking at complex decisions and negotiations. So it was more a kind of theoretical approach,” says Laurentiu, who originally hails from Romania.

“We started an R&D project with Enterprise Ireland initially. We always knew that this could have multiple applications, and finance was one of them.”

The research project with Enterprise Ireland yielded MAARS, which stands for Multi Attribute Analysis Ranking System.

The MAARS platform algorithms can analyse the hundreds of parameters, across thousands of stocks, to show any would-be investors what options most closely mirror their desired investment portfolio.

If you are looking at US stocks on the main exchanges like NASDAQ, or the New York Stock Exchange,” explains Laurentiu, “Altogether there are maybe 4,000 stocks, and each stock describes up to 200 financial parameters.”

For an investor who wishes to exercise due diligence in their financial dealings, the sheer level of detail involved in analyzing hundreds of stock options, renders it impossible to do so, “The human brain just can’t work in this way” he says.

The tools which currently exist to help investors analyse stocks are, says Laurentiu, “Quite primitive,” in only flagging as suitable stocks which exactly match your investment criteria.

“With this approach, an investor would lose many good stocks. Even if they have a very good strategy they could get only 60 percent of the eligible stocks that are out there. They would miss 40 percent. And who knows? Maybe there are really good stocks they just can’t see.

“So, this is what our algorithm does, it’s able to trawl the mass of equities and extract the closest fit and they are received in a ranked order.”

There have been attempts, he says, by the big financial houses to design similar programs, but there is no room for error in the world of finance.

“This is not trivial research. For somebody who wants to choose between ten types of apples, you don’t need a complex algorithm, but if you want to spend a half million dollars in one go for a particular set of stocks, then proper research and due diligence have to be exercised.

“There are many things to be taken into account as algorithm stability and algorithm flexibility. To add as many parameters as you want and go for as many stocks as you want, and at the same time to be safe and consistent,” he says.

For this reason, Peracton’s MAARS platform is not suitable for amateur investors, and some experience of finance and stock markets is necessary.

“This is a professional tool for traders but also we are looking at investment clubs, who know more about investments,” says Laurentiu.

Peracton currently employs three people in Galway, and one in Dublin. Two employees are based in Oxford, England, while three employees are based in the United States, divided between Boston and Silicon Valley.

There is currently some revenue coming in from deal with a major financial house, details of which Laurentiu is keeping firmly under wraps, and the plan is to develop the Irish, UK and US markets, before moving on to Asia and the Middle East.

For now, the focus is on constantly improving the product. “Every six months we are releasing new versions of our equity selectors.

“We are addressing stocks, mutual funds, bonds, ETFs, so we have modules for different types of equities. And we are improving and adding more and more functionality also for the user.”

Polecat: Mining for Meaning with MeaningMine

People now know that if you don’t want the world to know about something than don’t post it on the internet. (Sometimes sadly, but sometimes entertainingly, that particular message hasn’t quite reached everyone yet.)

For individuals it is quite possible to disappear from view online for most businesses this is neither a desirable or worthwhile option. After all, online is where the customers are. However, while a company can control its own postings it has no control over what others may say in response.

Leaving libel issues aside, these comments, whether they are hurtful or not, are a mine of invaluable data that, if thought about and acted upon correctly, could help the company shape a profitable future or enable a non-profit to have a more effective presence in ways that could not have been anticipated otherwise.

Data mining is a set of tools and techniques that enable individuals and organizations to find out how the data that they themselves are generating is being received, reacted to and given meaning by others. Correctly interpreted the results can show how a given activity or series of activities are being perceived by others.

This technology deployed in the fields of Business Information and Analytics is being found to be particularly useful and powerful. It can find the answers to the questions that any organisation that has an online presence has to ask itself on a consistent and regular basis. Such as:

Is what we are doing working?
Do people know we exist? One reason for the absence of sales may be the absence of knowledge about your product.
Do people care that we exist? Are customers seeing our product story as being relevant to them?
Is our offer appealing? Would people appreciate a bit more taste in the design and presentation?
Do people like or dislike dealing with us?
Are people interested but just not quite enough? What woud it take to make that sale?

These are just a few of the thousands of questions to which a new breed of specialist companies coming into existence in the big data space are able to retrieve meaningful answers. They have the technological capability to measure customer sentiment from many sources including the social media channels and be able to provide long-form analytics for business insights.

One such company is Polecat who are based in Dublin, Ireland. They have an R&D team in Bristol, in the UK, and an analytics team San Francisco, in the US.

According to John Peavoy, the Head of Sales at Polecat, “The company has done a lot of research into linguistics, machine learning and search algorithms. The team out of Bristol have created an engine that provides very relevant results to any search terms that you provide.”

The information acquisition platform is a program called MeaningMine which provides visualizations and graphs that can describe the health of a conversation: Key topics, key phrases, sentiment, magic quadrants around influencers and their key roles in a conversation.

“These are tools that enterprise will, typically, find very valuable as a briefing mechanism for the broader organization by informing decisions on how to engage with stakeholders on any particular subject.

“MeaningMine is a browser-based tool that allows you to enter various search terms, manage them, filter them and iterate and immediately see the results of any term you include in the research.”

John goes on to describe the MeaningMine interface, (screenshot above,) “You have a Google-like interface on the left. You have six standard visualizations or graphs, which are all customizable, on the right sid of the browser page. As you enter more terms into your search you can see the effect it has on either increasing or reducing your results. It makes the results more representative of what you are trying to find out.

“We have done a lot of work with some industry specific taxonomies around the energy sector, the financial services sector and some of the government sectors such as tourism.”

But this just the start. According to John, “We are also continuing to add visualizations. At the moment we have visualization around; top number of citations, the health of a particular conversation which is like an advanced sentiment analysis, top organizations, top people and top phrases and words.

“The next level of visualization, the more advanced visualizations which we will be introducing over the next quarter will include a force by sentiment chart — a graph that shows both positive and negative sentiment along a time axis. It provides a very strong snap shot of how a conversation is evolving or has evolved. It allows you to identify where you may need to engage with the stakeholders.”

Gartner estimated the business intelligence and analyis market to be worth over $10 billion in 2010. This is data derived from the software sales of big players such as SAP, Oracle, IBM etc. Another guesstimate, based on a broader base of platforms and tools, suggests the market could already have been worth as much as $50 billion two years ago.

Either way, the indicators show that the business intelligence, analytics and data-mining market is very much in the boom stage at the moment.

“The Irish organization has grown from two people at the end of last year to nine right now. We may be up to fifteen by the end of 2012. We are well on target to hitting thirty people in the Dublin office within three years if not sooner.”