It’s My 10 Year Anniversary

I started this blog 10 years ago.

I’ve changed jobs three times, ended relationships, lost friends, visited a dozen countries, changed industry twice, moved to a new house in a new city, learnt loads, made new friends in that time and the blog has remained constant.

To celebrate I’m reposting a few posts from previous years and commenting on what I got wrong (ipad), how stuff has changed (URLs) and what I got right.

I started this as a way to explore and write about the innovation I was seeing all around me working in digital/communications. As I explained in my first post

I want to write about ideas relating change in business, new technology and communication; only ‘idea’ seems so big and sweeping and life changing. Ideas belong to the ivory towers, the philosophers, the educators. So I chose the word “meme” instead.

Despite that intention my most viewed post ever was one about adding green to your twitter profile during the Iran revolution.

Here’s what I’ve written about over the ten years.

I’ve sustained this blog because I like writing, and I am fascinated by I’m writing about. Here’s some practical tips about how I get it done.

  1. Capture your writing ideas. I usually start a draft post for future use that I can add ideas, images and resource links to as preparation for eventually writing a post.
  2. Think ahead. I usually plan the subjects I want to write about about a month ahead and spend some time creating header images, which is the fun part.
  3. Set aside regular writing time. For me it’s Sunday morning, and I can combine reading up on my work areas with writing blog posts.
  4. Find a sustainable rate of posting. That’s two posts per week for me, usually one is in depth and one is simpler.
  5. It’s a hobby. So I don’t put pressure on myself to get it done if it’s not feeling like fun. There have been months when I’ve written 20 posts and months where I haven’t managed any. But I’m still writing after 10 years. Might be time to develop the habit into a book.

image champagne

 

 

The End of Stamp Collecting?

In today’s geek confession; I collected stamps as a child. I choose them for the design and colour, rather than any conscious theme. Tonga was a favourite source country as their stamps came in crazy shapes. It gave me a door to other countries, I would go and find the tongastampcountry in the atlas and try to learn about it.

On my first trip to China I met an amazing woman from Norway. She was travelling the world on the money she had made by selling a stamp collection she had inherited. She decided it was a good use of the money to see some of the places the stamps had come from.

My father still collects stamps, his collection is a thoughtful compilation of stamps featuring ships. It’s his thing, and on a recent visit to Dublin we made a special trip to the GPO for him to collect the only souvenir he wanted.

However stamps are in decline, both through the rise of email, and the change in technology. Businesses use franked envelopes, Dutch stamps now come as stickers, not suitable for collections, and the Danish have dropped stamps altogether opting for a code that you can receive via text. So what happens to stamp collectors?

I visited central post offices in London, Dublin and Vienna various trips in the last year or so and all had special collections for sale, often as attractive sheets and first day covers.

Stamps as a practical item are all but obsolete, given our growing use of email. But there is still a market for them as an asset, like a very specific, very tiny, art form. Stamps have become significant as commemorative items; one was issued last year for the 70th wedding anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, there’s likely to be one this year for Prince Harry’s wedding, a new stamp was released in the US this month to commemorate the life of Lena Horne as part of Black History Month. Some commemorations are politically dodgy; since the 1970s Australia has issued Australia Day stamps, with varying degrees of blindness to the colonial history, and this year acknowledged Aussie Greats in entertainment.

The stamps are aimed at collectors rather than letter senders. Stamps value goes up according to their rarity value. But for collectors of commemorative stamps the value will be a combination of the numbers printed, the life of the stamp, and the importance of what they commemorate. I suspect the banana stamps of Tonga’s heyday are a thing of the past. Stamps have outgrown their commodity status and emerged as  (almost) pure assets.  In 2011 a 1948 Indian stamp of Mahatma Gandhi sold for EUR 144,ooo, more than a million times its face value, the highest value for a modern day stamp at the time of auction. Another stamp commemorates a different sort of record; the stamp that’s travelled the furtherest has been to Pluto, there’s no auction value for it. Yet.

Now, where did I put that stamp album?

Images; Stamp Collection  | qimono, via Pixabay  |  CC0 1.o

 Banana Stamps  |  Stuart Rankin  |  CC BY-NC 2.0

 

World Refugee Day

World Refugee Day
Warsan Shire wrote a poem about the refugee experience which includes the frightening image

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark

The sentiment throughout her poem reflects the words of another great poet, Shakespeare, although he wrote from the perspective of the residents and calls on the to empathise with the refugees

Why, you must needs be strangers: would you be pleased
To find a nation of such barbarous temper,
That, breaking out in hideous violence,
Would not afford you an abode on earth,

The UNHCR provides data on the current refugee numbers, there are an estimated 65 million displaced people, that is people unable to live in their own homes due to war, conflict or persecution.  This is higher than it has ever been.

refugee data
Refugee Data from the UNHCR

Please note which are the top hosting countries. Around half of the world’s refugees are hosted by ten nations, of those ten nations just one, Turkey, is an OECD nation. Much of the rhetoric in the west is fear-based, the reasons for not taking refugees is that they pose a danger to us. However, as the Huffington Post pointed out, there are a bunch of things more dangerous than a Syrian refugee.

So have the courage to support your country’s initiatives to grant refugees the right to live in your country.  Write to your MP, senator, President, King.

Donate to charities that support refugees;

There are also local ways to help refugees settle, here in the Netherlands there is an award winning volunteer organisation called Refugee Start Force , which began with the idea of connecting locals and new arrivals for a cup of coffee, but it’s led to much more, helping refugees learn Dutch, find their way around the Dutch system, furnish their homes and find work.

Search for the hash tag #refugeeswelcome to find local initiatives you can support.

Next time you hear people reacting to the settlement of refugees in fear, anger or hate recite “no one leaves home unless, home is the mouth of a shark” to yourself and be brave enough to speak up for the millions of people forced to leave their homes through war, conflict, persecution.

Image: Refugees Welcome on Seawatch 2  |  Brainbitch  |   CC BY-NC 2.0

The Gig Economy

We’re in the gig economy, we can order food, dinner delivered, or cookies delivered at midnight if you’re in New York. We can share our spare room for cash on AirBnB, our trips with Uber, or garden tools we’re not using.  We can have someone visit us to hang a picture, build a bookcase or unblock a drain. In France you can have someone do your homework. The people providing the platforms say it unleashes innovation and offers exciting opportunities, it’s supposed to be good for us.

The companies offering platforms to enable all of this are lauded as disruptive and for a long time new companies were launched and cited as “the Uber of X“, there is even a book called “The Uber of Everything” which has the positive-sounding subtitle “How the Freed Market Economy is disrupting regulated industries and delighting customers”.

I’m all for disruption, but sometimes the disruption isn’t where you expect. Take AirBnB, there are a lot of articles about how AirBnB is disrupting the hotel industry, and it’s a service I’ve used in half a dozen cities. But it’s not the hotel industry that’s feeling the impact in Amsterdam, hotel nights are on the rise up 7% in Q1 2016, and numerous hotels have opened since airBnB launched in 2008. What has been affected is the rental market, with hundreds of apartments taken off the rental market. Amsterdam is not the only place to see an impact on the stock of rental apartments, and the city has now put limits in place.

Uber started out as a ride sharing platform, and it has a lot of benefits in terms of lowering congestion, lowering car pollution, reducing parking problems in cities. It has, according to some reports, lowered the rate of drink driving. There are a lot of positives. But there is also a downside. The industry that Uber set out to disrupt is the taxi industry seeing it as over-regulated and ripe for reform. When I hear the term “regulated industry” I always myself “who benefits?” In the case of the taxi industry there was a certain amount of industry protection to stop new entrants into the market, which maintains higher taxi prices. However it also protected drivers, allowing them to have a reasonable work week, and it protected passengers because drivers were licenced – as opposed to the ‘random driver‘ you might get as your Uber driver. Uber drivers started out as freelancers, part of the gig economy, but many of them now depend on their Uber income and are starting to fight back with attempts to unionise in Seattle and New York.

If we follow the money, it’s accruing to the platform owners. Uber’s revenue in 2016 is around USD6.5billion and AirBnB’s reached USD1.7billion. These two companies are doing very well out of the sharing economy. But there’s one platform that’s doing even better, Facebook earned almost USD27billion in 2017 almost all from advertising.

Other platforms began in one form and have evolved to others. Amazon began as a retail outlet and Netflix as a movie subscription service. Both have evolved into content creators each with a huge, somewhat overlapping, customer/subscriber base.  Although some local competitors exist, it would be almost impossible for a new entrant to compete with either platform on a global scale. This is fast becoming detrimental to those who work in creative fields.

For digital platforms the economics tend towards a “winner takes all” outcome, that is we end up with a single monopolistic player in each type of platform that evolves. This is because even if there’s room for several players in a market, ride-sharing for example, a platform can outspend –  or outsmart – competitors to acquire all the suppliers or all the customers. Once it has all the players on one side of the transaction it’s almost guaranteed acquisition of all those on the other side.

Stakeholder management theory says that a company must balance the interests of employees, customers and investors otherwise business model not sustainable, but in the case of platforms there is an imbalance of power allowing them to focus on the interests of investors, particularly prior to IPO when they must satisfy the demands of the Venture Capitalists. It’s taken new regulation to protect the interests of consumers, employees and others affected by the platform’s success.

The gig economy is good for business, it’s not so good for workers.

Right now I could order dinner to be delivered to me via Thuisbezorgd (the local incumbant), Foodora, Hungry, Deliveroo or Uber Eats. I predict that in one year’s time there will be just one platform.

Image: Lost in the Gig Economy?  | Tankesmedjan Futurion  |  BY-NC-SA 2.0 

 

Freedom of Expression Awards – Digital

CM2017_04_Awards.png

The winners of the annual Freedom of Expression Awards were announced lat week. These awards “exist to celebrate individuals or groups who have had a significant impact fighting censorship anywhere in the world”, and they fall into four categories: Arts, Campaigning, Journalism, and Digital Activism.

We’re used to thinking of freedom of expression as the ability to say what we want and how we want, and we know that all over the world people campaign for this and other rights so the first three of those seem intuitive. Digital Activism is very of this era and the entries used digital in diverse ways.

Turkey Blocks  – the winner

A campaign/tech team that monitors and publishes information on censorship and government blocking of the internet, particularly social media platforms. They have been able to identify 14 mass censorship events that coincide with political events, and their tools will be used elsewhere in the world.

Jensiat

An online graphic novel that aims to help Iranians understand cyber-danger, and sexual health. Each episode helps readers understand cyber issues such as protecting their privacy online. One goal was to make tech less “male”, and empower women to use technology. Unsurprisingly it was censored by the Iranian government.

Bill Marczak

A digital sleuth who has investigated government attempts to track journalists and activists in Bahrain, and uncovered technological weaknesses and spyware that put them in danger.

Evan Mawarire

A campaigner for better democracy in Zimbabwe his #ThisFlag campaign kicked off with a video of himself wearing his nation’s flag and led to mass protests. It’s now illegal for a flag to be in private ownership. It’s a mark of a campaign’s effectiveness when the government makes stupid laws in response.

The description for the category is “for innovative uses of technology to circumvent censorship and enable free and independent exchange of information”. Two of these finalists are there because the delivery of their campaign content was digital, and two are there because they did something in the digital ecosystem to understand and expose censorship. It’s a little hard for me to see the publication of a video online as innovative use of technology – YouTube has been around since 2005 – but the impact was high and Evan Mawarire was arrested on his return to Zimbabwe.

Look back at past winners in this category there is a strong reminder of just how great the risk of fighting for these rights can be. Bassel Khartabil won in 2013 for his work on creating a more open internet in Syria. He was not able to accept the award in person as he had been arrested, he is still imprisoned, and other activists are fighting for his release five years on.

Freedom of Expression is a basic right and the cornerstone of a functioning free society, the kind of society I want to live in. All the finalists are fighting for rights I pretty much take for granted, and I really shouldn’t, the rights were hard won and can be destroyed. ,

Image:  Artist Studio   |   See Ming Lee   |   CC BY-SA 2.0

Fake News

 

CM2017_04_fakenews.pngFAKE NEWS!

The rise and rise of this term has made it even harder to determine what to believe, although it has a very long dishonourable history. I’ve taken to checking and rechecking posts before commenting. But yesterday a friend posted an article claiming that the BCC and CNN had faked reports of chemical attacks in Syria. Both those organisations attract criticism for bias but are generally respected for their journalism, so I checked. It’s been debunked as invented by Russian journalists. Shortly after someone posted a very unlikely-sounding story about massive ill treatment and incarceration of LGBTx people in Chechnya, the source was Daily Mail and I refuse to click on Daily Mail links but I can Google it. Horrifyingly it’s true, with multiple reports from credible sources.

How can you tell if something is really fake news?

Let’s be clear there are a number of ways a news report can be wrong.

  • error
    the news centre may have got its facts wrong. Reputable news organisations avoid this and apologise quickly when it happens.
  • bias
    the news centre may have a stated bias, The Economist for example is slightly right wing, the Guardian is slightly left.  You can read both of the same events. In fact that’s healthy.
  • misleading
    the news centre starts with a viewpoint and presents information to support that viewpoint. Most news centres are guilty of this at some point (and remember editorial is not the same as news). At last year’s remembrance service in London one news outlet claimed that the leader of the Labour political party had danced, and they had the pictures to prove it.
  • facts are fabricated with the idea of changing your opinion, this is what I would consider “fake news”, and the above story that BBC/CNN had fabricated information on attacks in Syria falls into this category. As does a certain head of state’s statements on many issues.
  • satire
    there are some great satire pieces out there, but as the news gets weird it can be hard to tell which is real. That is predicted by Poe’s Law.

There are four things to consider when examining the news

  • what quality is the source?
  • how accurate is the reporting?
  • is there bias in the reporting?
  • is it a joke (satire)?

There’s a graphic doing the rounds online that puts these characteristics into one handy chart. (Originally created by Vanessa Otero)

media analysis

I’ve seen some criticism out there already, from both sides, so please use this as a starting point to create your own guide on what to read. (Personally I’d have put “The Atlantic” to the right of the Grauniad).

There is a call for the various social media to do more to prevent the publication of fake news – particularly following the climax of Pizzagate when a guy with a gun turned up at an innocent Pizza joint based on fake news reports. BBC’s Click Podcast covered some of the reasons that technology is not and easy, or complete, answer.

FactCheck.org produced a guide on spotting fake news, their whole article is worth reading but this infographic summarises the main points.

How to spot fake news

Note that we need to check our own biases. A lot of news is being presented in a very binary fashion, with predictable partisan lines being drawn. Checking our own biases means being aware of how our own views play into what we want to believe. We all need to hold ourselves to a high standard in what we read, repeat, post, and believe.

My reaction to the flood of news reports from the various world horrors going on is to check and recheck the news I’m reading and to try to read mostly from the upper oval, in light green. I’m also trying not to get into link wars, but to have discussions and add links when asked for evidence. I have also take to asking people for evidence of their claims, so far none of the people asked have been able to provide any (even the Facebook friend who virtually shouted at me to “GO and READ”.)

There’s no technical solution to fake news.  It comes down to all of us paying attention. We need to find ways of distinguishing the real news, understanding our biases, being vigilant on what we believe and taking responsibility for what we post.

POSTSCRIPT

Alvaro Cabellero kindly sent me a link to Mike Caulfield’s excellent article How “News Literacy” Gets Web Misinformation Wrong. It’s a sixteen minute read; the tldr advice is;

I have a simple web literacy model. When confronted with a dubious claim:

  • Check for previous fact-checking work
  • Go upstream to the source
  • Read laterally

It’s a good process, and will get you to an assessment of the quality of the journalism pretty quickly.

Image:  News  |  Jenn   | CC BY 2.0

 

Scandals and Company Culture

Years ago a court judge in New Zealand was convicted of expenses fraud, the judge’s defense was that he hadn’t understood what the forms required. The public reaction was disbelief; either he just thought he could get away with it or he was too stupid to be a judge.

Since that early example I’ve looked at company scandals and the explanations given with a suspicious eye. In every case there are signs of how the company culture has effectively colluded around the scandal – it’s never just one person, it’s people turning a blind eye, it’s fear of whistleblowing, it’s the company culture, it’s the CEO.

Following the Enron scandal I heard a story, possibly apocryphal, of a manager who joined the company. Shortly after joining he heard that the ambitious revenue targets had been sent out across the company, requiring a jump of 25% in sales from one quarter to the next. At the end of the next quarter, to his amazement, those sales targets had been met across the company. He smelt something rotten and decided to update his CV and move on, he was not surprised when the Enron scandal broke. At the time it was the biggest corporate bankruptcy the world had seen. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act was passed to prevent scandals of this scale ever happening again (it didn’t).

In the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme his family members were involved in the company, including his brother who was appointed as Chief Compliance Officer. There are rules in many companies about potential conflict of interest when partners or family members work together.

More recently Wells Fargo came under fire for the cross-selling scandal where staff opened credit card accounts for non-exisiting clients in order to meet targets. In companies employees focus on what gets rewarded; and when enough pressure is applied from their bosses and their colleagues some will break rules to meet those targets. The company directors’ failure to halt the scheme was called “gutless” by Elizabeth Warren – the company maintains that the employees – all 5,600 of them (so far) acted alone. Either the bosses knew or they should have know, but so far none have taken responsibility.

John Oliver’s piece on the US police system exposes the myth of the “one bad apple” and looks at some of the systemic issues behind the fatal police shootings in the US. The failures of process and policy erode the public trust in the police, reducing their ability to their job.

The points John Oliver makes could equally apply to businesses.

  1.  Leadership
    Your leader must lead, her actions must demonstrate her high ethical standards and she should speak clearly and frequently about the company’s ethics.
  2. Monitor/Collect data
    We can now analyse data and patterns of performance, look at patterns and changing patterns. At a financial institute I worked at we were required to take a break of at least two weeks. HR sold it as being good for employees but my security colleagues gave another explanation, the two week break was long enough to highlight any odd activities.
  3. Avoid conflict of interests
    Keep review processes independent, external if possible. Don’t hire siblings or partners into the same field. Declare any outside interests that might raise a red flag – I wrote some columns for a (former) supplier. I had to declare this and I donated the income to charity to remove any potential conflict. Independent reviews make a difference
  4. Transparent Processes
    The more open you are, the more public you can be about your processes, the less opportunity there is for fraud or scandal. A very simple example; some universities are using blockchain to certify their qualifications, as that becomes a public record there is no chance to create a fake degree.
  5. Rewards
    Be careful what you reward, that will direct the employee’s focus and in extreme cases leads to unethical behaviour to reach stretch targets.
  6. Whistleblower procedure
    Even with all the best practices in place something could go wrong. Create a robust, independent whistleblower procedure.  Whistleblowers are generally punished for coming forward, be the exception.

Building a scandal resistant company culture is not easy; not doing so is expensive, even fatal.

Image: Shhh  |  philm1310 via Pixabay  |   CC0