Drones for Good

At Expo 2015 in Milan I spotted some examples of drones being used in ingenious ways, as a navigation aid in a sand dune environment for example, connected to a four wheel vehicle with its very own built-in “drone helipad”.

So far my exposure to drones has either been the militaristic  or the artistic sort. I started to wonder about other uses, commercial uses, and not the hyped up “Amazon will deliver to your fourth floor apartment window”. So I did some research. Here are some of the coolest uses I found.


Nicknamed “precision agriculture”, drones are giving farmers better data and more detail on their crops. Enabling them to target any treatment, and follow a crop’s progress.

I saw a couple of examples of drone use for agriculture at the EXPO, at the Kazakhstan pavilion where they were using drones to target insecticide and fertiliser use.

The Dutch pavilion also showed a pair of potato farmers who use drones to  assess areas that need more seeding, watering or fertilising.

A great way to save costs, but also to reduce the chemical run off to waterways, agricultural use is seen by some as the biggest potential market for drones.

Inspecting Oil Rigs

Oil rigs and wind farms sit out at sea in tough operating conditions and need regular inspection. Using drones has taken the inspection time from 8 weeks down to 5 days, a massive saving of operational costs.

Real Estate

Drone photography and video is seen as a great potential marketing tool in the Real Estate industry – but it’s subject to various regulation in most countries. In the UK and Australia commercial drone operator permits are possible, but in the US the FAA is banning commercial use of drones, although they might be fighting a losing battle.

A second potential use is for monitoring real estate development projects, a site visit from the ground as it were.


Drones are used for creating sweeping views in advertising, TV documentaries, and movies.

It means that some of those shots once out of scope for those on a limited budget are now possible. Good news for indie film makers, not so good for helicopter pilots.


Pretty sure you couldn’t make the high level shots in the Rockin1000 without drones (now someone will tell me it’s a camera on a super boom).

Burning http://www.mercurynews.com/ci_28682001/drones-improving-oil-rig-inspectionMan now issues permits for drone use at the event and limits the number to thirty. It’s also produced a guideline on drone use to address safety concerns.

Less commercial but still interesting developments are uses of drains for humanitarian aid and wildlife research.


Drones have been used as tools for disaster relief in the aftermath of the Nepal earthquake on a scale unseen before. In part because the technology has matured, and partly because the country already had transport issues reaching its isolated villages. Combined with crowd-sourced work from volunteers around the world, the drone images are helping researchers document damage and prioritise rescue efforts.

Amazon and Domino’s both had PR wins out of trialling drones for delivery but there could be a sensible application; delivering medicine to isolated areas. Medicines are high value yet small, and so could be worth the investment. A Gates Foundation funded team are working on this, and Deutschepost DHL have apparently been testing it as a means of delivering to an isolated island.

Wildlife Research

While researching for this post the video below turned up all over social media. It’s a view of whales that is taken from the air, and obviously doesn’t disturb them in their habitat. And for anyone worrying about the dude on the paddle board, these are Southern Right Whales, baleen feeders. Of course they could still wipe him off the board with a flick of the tail.

The whale video is more opportunistic observation, but scientist have also been using drones to research wildlife in more inaccessible areas, for example monitoring orangutan populations in Indonesia.

It’s not a new idea, WWF Nepal began using drones to monitor the endangered one-horned rhinoceros and tigers more than three years ago.

Future Uses

I’ve seen a few documentaries recently that have used camera techniques and helicopters to increase the understanding of ancient structures like Angkor Wat and Stonehenge. Surely there’s a role for drones here.

There is also space for “drones as a service” companies, offering drone + operator for a single use, in fact a number of drone start-ups are already developing companies to cash in on this concept.

Some predictions suggest that the next big use of drones will be as Christmas presents, I do get the appeal – another toy to play with, even though some people don’t seem to understand when it might not be a good idea to play with the toy. The genie is out of the bottle on drones, and countries/authorities need to find ways to regulate and licence drone pilots for responsible use. After all, we all need a licence to drive a car.

Web Summit Highlights: Day One

Phil Libin, CEO Evernote

I missed his presentation last year, but my colleague recommended him as a speaker and a visionary, so this year I was determined to be in the room.

His vision comes down to; make work less sucky.

Evernote are ahead of the curve on productivity tools. They see the free version as their main version, and focus on getting people to “stay rather than pay”. People use the free version for a long time before buying into the product. They’ve also seen that individual users are often their best leads for enterprise to use Evernote.

His advice to entrepreneurs and developers; make something useful, see if people will like it and stay on it. Their best test of whether will use a new feature or tool is whether their colleagues use it.

Lew Cirne

Lew Cirne is the founder and CEO of New Relic, a company founded on the principal of making data visual in a way that is useful.

He had the quote of the day

Life is too short for bad software

The Role of Technology in Filmmaking: John Underkoffler and Tim Webber

John Underkoffler from Oblong worked on Minority Report and went on to make a real version of some of the coolest tools shown in the movie. Tim Webber from Framestore won the Oscar for visual effects in the movie Gravity. What I loved about this discussion was the emphasis on telling a story. The story comes first and the technology is tool to tell that story.

In the future they see the possibility to integrate with reality tools, but that this has to work in parallel with the story rather than detracting from the story. It occurs to me that at some point movies with virtual reality tools will start to blur the line between movies and games.

The next technology challenge is CGI “humans” that are believable and sustainable for a whole movie.

One key to their success is a very interesting skill that has growing importance in all sorts of companies. Movies are now made across several teams located in different countries, so collaboration in virtual environments has become an essential skill.

Eva Longoria

Room starts to fill up – this might be the closest geeks ever get to genuine stars.

This is not the most original of interviews, some of the questions seem to have been cribbed from an old Cosmo magazine. But Eva Longoria is gracious and funny and she gets her points across.

  • in the cycle of poverty the best intervention is education
  • women start biz at 3x rate of men but have trouble getting access to expertise and capital (in US)
  • her foundation starts addressing these issues

By the end of the 20 minute interview there is a crowd at the front in a photo frenzy.

Gary Marcus

Artifical Intelligence has been disappointing, all the best stuff is always promised as something 20 years away – but we’ve been saying that for 50 years. As Peter Thiel once said “We wanted flying cars, we got 140 characters”

Privacy Discussion

Last year there was a panel discussion in a tiny hard-to-find room, that ended up over-crowded with people peering in through the door. This year it’s on the main stage. Privacy is a real issue, and a challenge for all companies working in digital. An ongoing challenge in my work in social media.

Legal rep for NSA vs CEO from Cloudflare on the basis of privacy in the digital world; neither of them deny the importance of privacy and the challenges faced. But the discussion is where does the responsibility lie?

Peoples’ expectations have changed, many users will sacrifice some privacy for free services. Facebook and Google have a business model that exploits this, selling aggregated data to advertisers. But this is not everyone’s business model; Apple, Cloudflare and Ello are showing that.

There seems to be an ongoing tension between security and privacy; is this inevitable?

Drew Housten

The CEO and founder of Dropbox, a tool I’ve loved and used for years.

He begins by talking about a tennis ball and the number 30,000

The tennis ball represents obsession – think of a dog at play, and 30,000 represents the number of days you have have in your life. Realising at the age of 24 he’d used up a third of them jolted him into starting out as an entrepreneur.

As Dropbox became successful he got a call; Apple were interested. He famously didn’t sell. When asked what number was on the table, he admits they never got as far as stating a number. Before the meeting someone told him that if he didn’t want to sell the company then don’t discuss selling the company.

When asked about competition he answers almost casually “We’ve always had competiton”, but manages to give the impression that being seen as a competitor to giants such as Google et al is a sign of success.

There was an announcement earlier – Dropbox and Microsoft have agreed to work together and produce deep integration between their two products. This leads to a question about equal pay – given the Microsoft CEO’s advice to women to rely on “karma” for salary equality. His answer is unequivocal “two people doing the same work should get the same money regardless of gender”.

And with a round of applause I wander off to find a Dublin shuttle bus. The driver roars “it’s two euro and tirty-five cents, all Dublin buses take coins only” and when we look surprised “this information is all on the web”.

Finance and Innovation

Fast Company listed their most innovative companies for the year, including a top ten for innovation in financial services, companies who are building great things for their customers; new services and new platforms.

There were very few on the list I’d ever heard of so I started reading through the list and the company profiles; I started to wonder (a) how new are these companies? and (b) why is it so hard for incumbents, despite their resources, to innovate their way onto this list?

Answering that first question, here’s list of the companies in the top ten with the year they were established. Only two of the ten are more than ten years old.

Company Name Established Service Provided
Nice systems 1986 Consumer service for mobile, including within apps.
Square 2009 Send money via email.
Bitcoin 2009 Cryptocurrency, removing all the middlemen in financial services.
GiveDirectly 2008 Donate via cellphone, direct to the recipient.
Dwolla 2008 Building a better banking network and launching a credit card.
Transferwise 2011 Peer-to-peer international currency transfers.
OneID 2011 Creating a single login – no more remembering multiple passwords.
Mastercard 1966 Re-imagining the mobile-payment network with MasterPass.
Estimize 2011 Crowd-sourcing estimates on company performance, and doing better than most of the pros.
Etoro 2007 A social network for traders, lets you copy the investment of other traders.

All of these innovations take advantage of something in the digital space, some on the growing world of mobile. To be fair the banks have also been active and innovative in this space – just not at the same rate. Some of the innovations above support and use

There’s already some discussion on why it’s so hard for large companies in established industries to innovate. Even the best techniques from Silicon Valley aren’t a magic path to increasing innovation according to this HBR article. It comes down to culture; the things that make a company successful at execution at scale aren’t the things that make a company naturally great at innovation. There are companies that are able to innovate and to scale their operations, but it’s a rare combination.

Is there something about the financial sector that makes it even harder? Perhaps, some sectors (music, travel) show a similar batch of relatively young companies, but the energy sector has more than twice the number of companies over 10 years.

I think there are two things that make it harder for financial services companies to innovate. The first is the risk mindset, in theory financial services companies should be expert at assessing risk and take decisions that maximise return for an accepted risk. In my experience the growing pressure of public opinion and increasing regulation have reduced whatever appetite there was for risk since the global financial crisis. And that’s the second thing – the global financial crisis began in 2007 and during the crisis and in the years since affected financial institutions have had to focus on legal cases, restructuring, cost control and divestment. All of that left little room and few resources for innovation. It’s probably not a co-incidence that half of the companies in the top ten were started between 2007 and 2009.

It’s great that there’s innovation in finance, and many of the solutions are customer-focused either as improved service or as de-mystifying the world of finance. I hope it inspires the “old” banks; there are more opportunities for more innovation.

Postscript September 2018, all the companies are still trading under the names listed except OneID which was acquired by Neustar.


Image; finance via pixabay

The Web Summit Highlights

It was another great conference, with lots of new ideas, great speakers and interesting people.

Highlights for me;

Seeing hundreds and hundreds of start ups; many I will never hear of again and some won’t ever “make it big” but it shows that digital is still innovative, and that much of the innovation is outside the standard companies. I spoke to a couple of people who work in incubators – helping these new companies get off the ground. It takes time and support to build a business out of an idea. Here are 15 of the hottest apps from the Summit.

I went to the “Leadership Lunch” which is a lunch for women in leadership positions in the digital world with keynote speakers. I’m usually a bit wary of “separate” events, but this had some great speakers so I signed up. It was really interesting to hear more personal insights of the challenges women have faced in working in Digital, but the biggest round of applause came for Caithriona Hallahan’s comment that one day we won’t think women leading in digital as unusual or remarkable and this won’t be needed.

Best session for me was a panel discussion on privacy, this is going to be an ongoing issue for all companies as digital becomes more mainstream and increasingly ubiquitous. It’s one where neither law nor technology has all the answers.

This year’s summit had more than twice the number of participants as last year, it added a “food summit” to showcase Irish food and is slowly being rebranded as “The Summit” as its fame grows. Some things were better this year – the taxis had been warned for example, and some things were worse – the wifi truly sucked.

There are plans to make it bigger and better next year – and you can already sign up for the 2014 two-for-one ticket offer. Prices are up on this year but it’s still good value as conferences go.

Web Summit

websummit2It’s the Web Summit conference in Dublin this week; a conference  filled with the great and the good of the digital world. This year’s conference has five stages; Main Stage, Digital Marketing, Cloud, Development, and Library.

There are more speakers with “Founder” after their name at this conference than any other I’ve been to, and there are new start ups pitching great (and not so great) concepts. There are also events beyond the conference – this year a Night Summit and a Food Summit have been added.

There are some speakers I’m really looking forward to; Padmasree Warrior, Robert Scoble, Matt Mullenweg, Phil Libin, Michael Acton Smith. All leaders in digital business. There are speakers from the best publications in digital; Spencer Reiss from Wired, Mark Millian the tech writer from Bloomberg, Alexia Tsotsis from TechCrunch. And there are some topics that tempt me; “Big Data for Good or Ill” and “Future Content: Making Stuff People Actually Want to Read”.

Last year some of the most inspiring talks were from people I hadn’t heard of before – it’s where I first heard about Coder Dojo for example.

This conference attracts speakers who are driving digital change, they are leaders and innovators. It’s an great lineup.

I’m looking at the agenda and it’s really terrible, there is so much great content that I’m struggling to make a choice on which session to go to – it’s a luxury problem.

The End of Money?

Once upon a time we traded directly; the herbs I’ve grown for the eggs your hens laid. But that limited trade to very local systems, and meant most goods couldn’t be traded over long distances. So we developed a use of rare metals (most often gold and silver) as proxies for value. Their rarity ensured a measure of stability, but they were difficult to transport. Enter the banks, organisations whose 4000 year old origins are in supporting trade, farming and manufacturing. Currency eventually became a state matter, issued most often by national banks. With retail banks ubiquitous and providing banking services for individuals.

Given that we now have electronic transactions; online, via the internet, via bank cards of various forms and even into near field communication do we still need money? There are very few transactions I make in cash, and increasing numbers of retail outlets which only accept card payments.

Paul Kemp-Robertson proposes a future of branded currency, where banks are not necessary in a video explaining the future of money.

There are concerns about how bitcoins are used, they’re used in all transactions on the Silk Road, providing users some level of anonymity and avoiding any sort of regulatory oversight. Other concerns relate to just how they work – it seems to be easy to manipulate the market. Although bitcoins can be traded for national currencies it has not been considered a currency and therefore has not been under formal regulation.

That lack of oversight may change; the US regulators have shown increasing interest as the use of Bitcoins has grown. It’s an interesting move if the world’s largest economy recognises  a virtual currency this could mean the geeks will rule the banking system.

Image Bitcoin

Deep Branding – on a washing machine

When you use certain combinations of buttons on your washing machine it plays a song, at least if your machine is made by Fisher & Paykel it does.

Fisher & Paykel is a New Zealand company, and that’s the New Zealand national anthem playing. (You might get a better idea of the tune when Hayley Westenra sings it)

Other companies have included a tune when the machine’s cycle is done but this an example of the company going a step beyond the company’s brand and the product’s function.  I think of these ‘surprises’ companies deliver as deep branding. Fisher & Paykel are obviously proud to be Kiwi.


Second screen

My enjoyment of certain TV programmes goes up by adding twitter, and I’m not alone. According to econsultancy around 40% of smart phone owners and tablet owners use their devices during a TV programme.

I’ve ended up following and chatting with other watchers of the same TV programmes – so much for the anti social tag applied to both TV and mobile devices. And with more people living alone this may represent an increase in community, not a decrease.

Programme makers have seen this opportunity with many providing “official” hashtags such as #americanidol, #hignfy (Have I Got News For You), and #HGT (Holland’s Got Talent). Some programmes have even gone a step further, with the X Factor setting up voting via direct message.

Disney, perhaps the king of content providers, has added a whole range of apps to support their second screen experience, synchronising it with Blu-Ray TV. They have provided rich interactive content for some of their most popular shows on iPad or PC/Mac, but haven’t evolved to cover the android market as yet.

To me all of the above options can be considered a second screen experience, but some commentators are making a distinction between “social TV” where viewers are encouraged to use social media to interact with each other along side watching a programme, and “second screen” where the programme maker provides content specific for a programme to enhance the viewer’s experience in real time. That would include the apps provided by Disney, but could also be in depth statistics at a sports match or interviews and movie clips around an awards ceremony.

And there’s one further category to consider; those who watch the twitter feed but not the programme.

How about you – how do you watch TV?


Critical Mass

Wikipedia defines critical mass as the point when;

a sufficient number of adopters of an innovation in a social system so that the rate of adoption becomes self-sustaining and creates further growth.

When people will adopt depends on where they sit in the adoption lifecycle, and if you’re managing the implementation of a innovation into a company it’s crucial to help each group in their own adoption process. Critical mass is usually said to fall between the early adopters and the early majority, although some research puts it further into the early majority phase.

The five categories can be defined as:

  • innovators – eager to try something new, need little training
  • early adopters – quick to try something new, seek out new experiences, see benefits of the innovation
  • early majority – open to new ideas, will try something if the purpose is clear, influence to colleagues
  • late majority – want proof it works, safety and systems around anything they use,
  • laggards – reluctant to change, sometimes only change because their existing tool is obsolete, or no longer available.

Not everyone is the same type for all innovations I’m an example of someone who can be an early adopter with one innovation and a laggard with another – I joined Linkedin in about 2005, but didn’t get a smart phone until last year.

Critical mass, where the growth in adoption becomes self sustaining, is reached when the early majority start to take up your innovation.

I’m trying to apply this to our implementation of an Enterprise Social Network, we have a total target audience of about 65,000 and so far 45,000 have signed up to use the tool. So that sounds like we’re already into the late majority – job done.

Except signing up is a low impact activity and doesn’t reflect a real use. It just means the person has agreed to the terms and conditions.

So I’ve been looking for some other measurable behaviours which we could consider as a threshold for use.

We see a monthly report on active users. To be considered an active user you need to have done something – anything – in the time frame measured. The activity could be five useful answers to five other users or it could be a comment or a like. So it’s a very broad measure, but by this measure we are into the early majority as of January – just.

We have implemented badges on our enterprise social network and this might give the best measure of where we are on the adoption lifecycle. The lowest level badge, the “starter” badge rewards a low level of activity; a post and a few comments and you’re there. By this measure we’re about to enter the “early adopters” stage. However badges were only introduced 6 months after launch so they under measure the adoption activity.

Looking at all these measures, the data per country, and reviewing how the Enterprise Social Network is used I believe we’re still with the early adopters across the company, but we’re into the early majority in the two countries with the largest numbers of employees. This is huge progress. Now the challenge is to embed this Enterprise Social Network in the company, my real measure of success is when it’s just how we work.

Images boulder

Work found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:DiffusionOfInnovation.png / CC BY-SA 3.0