Monthly Archive for September, 2008

Silicon Beach Australia podcast #1

Looks like I am now venturing into the world of podcasting!

Its been a great learning experience in creating this form of media, and I look forward to doing more. In this first episode, my co-host Bronwen Clune and yours truly interview CEO of Atlassian Mike Cannon-Brookes .

We are doing it with Australian start-up The Podcast Network . Why? Because the first rule Bronwen and I agreed on, was that if we are going to be promoting Aussie innovation, we might as well eat our own dog food do it whilst using Aussie innovation where possible. Certainly, the experience has given me a great insight into the value of such a service, which I am sure I will write about in future. Its been excellent working with Cam and team at TPN.

For now, here is the link – I hope you enjoy it! Silicon Beach Australia podcast – Episode one

Link to the podcast blog: http://siliconbeachpodcast.com

Three startups in 24 hours – lessons in the costs of innovation

I’m sitting here at Start-up weekend, a concept instigated by Bart Jellema and partner Kim Chen, as an experiment of bringing the Australian tech community together, part of the broader effort several of us are pursuing to build Silicon Beach in Australia.

I’ve dropped in on the tail-end, and it’s amazing to see what happened. Literally, in the space of 24 hours, three teams of five people have created three separate products. They are all well-thought out, with top-notch development, and clearly designed to actually pass off as a genuine start-up that’s been working on the idea for weeks if not months.

TrafficHawk.com.au is a website delivering up to the minute traffic alerts for over six million drivers in the state of New South Wales, the biggest state in Australia
LinkViz.com is a service that enables you to visually determine what’s hot on Twitter, a social media service.
uT.ag is a service that monetises links people share with other people.

All three of these products have blown me away, not just in the quality, but the innovation. For example, ut.ag is a url shortening application that competes against the many others out on the market (popular with the social media services) but adds an advertisement to the page people click to view. Such a stupidly simple idea that I can’t believe it hasn’t been created before…and it’s already profitable in the few hours of operation! LinkViz provides a stunningly visual representation of links, that it’s hard to believe this was created – from concept to product – in such a short time. Traffic Hawk is a basic but useful mashup that genuinely adds value to consumers.

The challenges
This is a clear demonstration that when you get a bunch of people together, anything can happen: pure innovation, in a timewarp of a few hours. Products, with real revenue potential. It’s scary to witness how the costs of business in the digital economy can be boiled down to simply a lack of sleep! But talking to the teams, I realised that the costs were not as low as they could have been. It also is an interesting insight into the costs to business on the internet, seen through this artificial prism of reality.

For example, Geoff McQueen (a successful developer/businessman, that was also one of the founders of Omnidrive) of the Traffic Hawk site was telling me about the difficulty they experienced. Whilst the actual service looks like a basic mashup on Google maps, the actual scraping of data from a government website (real time traffic incidents), was considerably painful. Without attention from the team in future, their site will break as the scraping script is dependent on the current configuration with the HTML pages displaying the data. The fact that this is a ‘cost’ for them to develop the idea, is a wasteful cost of business. The lost resources in developing the custom scraping script, and the future maintenance required, is an inefficient allocation of resources in the economy. And for what good reason? Traffic hawk is making the same data, more useful – it’s not hurting, only helping the government service.

This is a clear example of the benefits of open data, where in a DataPortability enabled world, the entrepreneurial segments of the economy that create this innovation, can focus their efforts in areas that add value. In fact, it is a clear demonstration of the value chain for information.

LinkViz on the other end have a different disadvantage. Whilst they have access to the Twitter API that enables them to pull data and create their own mashup with it (unlike the hawkers), the actual API is slow. So the price for a better service from them, is money to get faster access.

Talking with the ut.ag boys, the issue was more a matter of infrastructure. They could have had the same product launched with more features, 12 hours earlier (ie, 12 hours AFTER conception) if it wasn’t for the niggly infrastructure issues. This is more a function of the purposely disorganised nature of the camp, and so the guys lost a lot of time with setting up networks and repositories. I believe however, this should be a lesson about the impact of the broader ecosystem and governments influence on innovation.

For example, we need faster broadband…but also an omnipresent connection. A person should be able to flip open their laptop, and access the internet in an affordable matter that connects them to their tools, anywhere.

Concluding thoughts
The whole purpose of this camp, was not the destination but the process. People getting to know each other, learn new skills – or as Linda Gehard says: “It’s like exercise for entrepreneurs”. However what started as a quick and dirty post to give the guys some exposure, has had me realise the costs to innovation in the economy. When you take out the usual whines about investors and skills shortages, and put together some highly capable people, there are some specific things that still need to be done.

Update 8/9/08:Apologies for the typos and misspellings – my blog locked me out due to a corruption in the software and didn’t save my revised version that I thought I saved. And a huge thank you to Joan Lee, who has now become my official proof reader. Liako.Biz, it appears, is no longer a one man band!

Thoughts on privacy – possibly just a txt file away

The other week, a good friend of mine through my school and university days, dropped me a note. He asked me that now that he is transitioning from being a professional student to legal guru (he’s the type I’d expect would become a judge of the courts), that I pull down the website that hosts our experiment in digital media from university days. According to him, its become "a bit of an issue because I have two journal articles out, and its been brought to my attention that a search brings up writing of a very mixed tone/quality!".

In what seemed like a different lifetime for me, I ran a university Journalist’s Society and we experimented with media as a concept. One of our successful experiments, was a cheeky weekly digital newsletter, that held the student politicians in our community accountable. Often our commentary was hard-hitting, and for $4 web hosting bills a month and about 10 hours work each, we become a new power on campus influencing actions. It was fun, petty, and a big learning experience for everyone involved, including the poor bastards we massacred with accountability.

control panel

Privacy in the electronic age: is there an off button?

However this touches on all of us as we progress through life, what we thought was funny in a previous time, may now be awkward that we are all grown up. In this digitally enabled world, privacy has come to the forefront as an issue – and we are now suddenly seeing scary consequences of having all of our information available to anyone at anytime.

I’ve read countless articles about this, as I am sure you have. One story I remember is a guy who contributed to a marijuana discussion board in 2000, now struggles with jobs as that drug-taking past of his is the number one search engine result. The digital world, can really suck sometimes.

Why do we care?

This is unique and awkward, because it’s not someone defaming us. It’s not someone taking our speech out of context, and menacingly putting it a way that distorts our words. This is 100% us, stating what we think, with full understanding what the consequences of our actions were. We have no one but ourselves to blame.

nice arse

Time changes, even if the picture doesn’t: Partner seeing pictures of you – can be ok. Ex seeing pictures of you – likely not ok.

In the context of privacy, is it our right to determine who can see what about us, when we want them to? Is privacy about putting certain information in the "no one else but me" box or is it more dynamic then that – meaning, it varies according to the person consuming the information?

When I was younger, I would meet attractive girls quite a bit older than me, and as soon as I told them my age, they suddenly felt embarrassed. They either left thinking how could they let themselves be attracted to a younger man, treating me like I was suddenly inferior, or they showed a very visible reaction of distress! Actually, quite memorably when I was 20 I told a girl that I was on a date with that I was 22 – and she responded "thank God, because there is nothing more unattractive I find, than a guy that is younger than me". It turned out, fortunately, she had just turned 22. My theory about age just got a massive dose of validation.

Now me sharing this story is that certain information about ourselves can have adverse affects on us (in this case, my sex life!). I normally could not care less about my age, but with girls I would meet when I went out, I did care because it affected their perception of me. Despite nothing changing, the single bit of information about my age would totally change the interaction I had with a girl. Likewise, when we are interacting with people in our lives, the sudden knowledge of a bit of information could adversely affect their perception.

Bathroom close the hatch please

Some doors are best kept shut. Kinky for some; stinky for others

A friend of mine recently admitted to his girlfriend of six months that he’s used drugs before, which had her breakdown crying. This bit of information doesn’t change him in any way; but it shapes her perception about him, and the clash with her perception with the truth, creates an emotional reaction. Contrast this to these two party girls I met in Spain in my nine-months away, who found out I had never tried drugs before at the age of 21. I disappointed them, and in fact, one of them (initially) lost respect for me. These girls and my friends girlfriend, have two different value systems. And that piece of information, generates a completely differing perception – taking drugs can be seen as a "bad person" thing, or a "open minded" person, depending on who you talk to.

As humans, we care about what other people think. It influences our standing in society, our self-confidence, our ability to build rapport with other people. But the issue is, how can you control your image in an environment that is uncontrollable? What I tell one group of people for the sake of building rapport with them, I should also have the ability of ensuring that conversation is not repeated to others, who may not appreciate the information. If I have a fetish for women in red heels which I share with my friends, I should be able to prevent that information from being shared with my boss who loves wearing red heels and might feel a bit awkward the next time I look at her feet.

Any solutions?

Not really. We’re screwed.

Well, not quite. To bring it back to the e-mail exchange I had with my friend, I told him that the historian and technologist in me, couldn’t pull down a website for that reason. After all, there is nothing we should be ashamed about. And whilst he insisted, I made a proposal to him: what about if I could promise that no search engine would include those pages in their index, without having to pull the website down?

He responded with appreciation, as that was what the issue was. Not that he was ashamed of his prior writing, but that he didn’t want academics of today reading his leading edge thinking about the law, to come across his inflammatory criticism of some petty student politicians. He wanted to control his professional image, not erase history. So my solution of adding a robots.txt file was enough to get his desired sense of privacy, without fighting a battle with the uncontrollable.

Who knew, that privacy can be achieved with a text file that has two lines:

User-agent: *

Disallow: /

Those two lines are enough to control the search engines, from a beast that ruins our reputation, to a mechanism of enforcing our right to privacy. Open standards across the Internet, enabling us to determine how information is used, is what DataPortability can help us do achieve so we can control our world. The issue of privacy is not dead – we just need some creative applications, once we work out what exactly it is we think we are losing.