Thursday, 25 November 2010

Why are we measuring happiness?

There is a misconception that measuring happiness is somehow un-economic. Big Businesses don’t do it, so why should we? Surely we can work out that less police means more crime, and few cleaners in hospitals means dirtier wards?

These are the sort of comments seen in the media and from high profile commentators. If you do understand economics, though, happiness is an integral part of the study. There is an ugly word, utility, that is used to describe economic happiness and it’s factored into a lot of theory.

Granted, a very basic pure free market economics ignores utility in the main, dividing resources down to the most economical outcome without affecting an individual. But I’ve always felt that if you can redistribute a resource that makes one individual slightly worse off, it could be justified if the resource boosts the overall economy by a larger amount

The Laffer curve is an easy example demonstrating personal happiness. It measures labour against pay and appears as a hump or a hill shape. Basically, the more we are paid the more we will work, up until the point where we have the money to enjoy our leisure time and still maintain a good standard of living. Why work 24/7 if you can afford a big house, expensive holidays and a horse to ride?

The demand for goods and services is measured using utility. Why buy filet steak when you can buy sirloin? It is because we enjoy the flavour more and see a stronger demand. Politicians often like to think of themselves as economists, but this is an example of where most get it wrong.

The question is why should happiness values be so divisive and seen as a gimmick? The problem is that utility is very hard to measure, and even those measure that are used can be more trend lead than something you can look at in isolation. On this basis these first figures are not that useful and are merely a first step.

Because they are hard to measure, people haven’t bothered with it and have ignored it. Traditional measures seem to work on the whole so the status quo has continued. Cameron has tried to show that the UK is leading this field. This isn’t true. Several countries have been using these measures like France.

So how does it work? We can also see the economic figures of GDP, RPI and so forth, but we also need to understand about confidence, likes and dislike. The stress of spiralling inflation or interests can affect someone’s state of mind. An individual carries these in to work and they don’t perform as well.

The nation becomes less healthy through poor diet and they again can become less economically useful in certain industries where physicality is an issue. Something like the Olympics can lift the nation. The Ashes might either lift or depress a section of the population. Although financially, a road building problem might seem marginal, the relief of stress on commuters could see a boost to the economy.

It is measured by surveying people about how they feel about aspects of their life. The questions are not yes or no and getting the questions right is key to finding the right answers.

It is the smaller decisions, rather than the big questions, that happiness measures should affect. Equally, it isn’t a question of more of one or less of another. It might be which one of two projects should be cut or which of two is better value.

In a work environment, how would you feel if tea and coffee facilities were removed from your office and you were not expected to leave your desk. Would your work levels increase? Logic might say yes because you are now working for the 15 minutes it takes to brew and drink your beverage.

But another logic suggests the brain might work better after a short pause to clear the mind and set it ready for the task ahead. The workers are happier as well as they can demonstrate community spirit (getting the round in) and chat for a limited period. Now extend that into laws on work time and breaks.

One thing to remember is the measure follows unhappiness as well, so real areas of concern can be highlighted.

If you want to know more about the subject there is a great TEDx presentation that explains it in an even more accessible way from Chip Connley.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Behind the scenes of the Northern Art Prize

It is not often you get a chance to have a sneak preview of a significant event or product. When I was invited to see behind the scenes at the Northern Art Prize, exhibited at Leeds Art Gallery from the 26th November, I couldn’t refuse.

I have an appreciation of art but I am no critic. The blogger event wasn’t aimed at critical appreciation, but of opening a discussion and debate about the Northern Art Prize and its accessibility. The people who ‘know’ about art will be aware of the event but the very word art sometimes puts people off experiencing work they might just enjoy. The event attempted to address this by finding honest comment on the works as they prepare for exhibition.

Another part of seeing behind the scenes is appreciating the hard work that goes into creating an exhibition. Seeing the works of art as they are being assembled, or re-assembled, shows how much work is needed to put an installation in place. Even those who experience the works of art can miss the appreciation on the organisation, logistics and time consuming precision needed to place everything just right.

Most exhibitions have a theme but what was remarkable about the works of art on display was they worked as a collection despite being selected individually. Liverpool still seemed to be a cultural reference and with it themes of industry, migration and multi-culturalism. The works we were able to see had positivity and playfulness; even when looking at bigger socio-political subjects.

Alec Finlay’s four glass blown apples was the first exhibit that caught the eye. To me apples bring to mind the countryside and orchards, having been brought up in the Midlands close to the apple growers of Hereford and Worcestershire. The shear skill required to create such delicate and natural looking apples is impressive in itself but placed on a white background in pairs, you can’t help but look at the differences.

Another of his works is a bowl of seaside rock pieces with the words You have to choose to be chosen written in it. Other than a comment on the prize itself, and the fact it’s fun, I’m not sure what else it says. The same could be said for rock, paper, scissors ARC (Sofia), a neon sculpture showing the childhood game.

Unfortunately the audio-visual display from Haroon Mirza in the same room was not there. The combination of three works called Anthemoessa (the islands in Greek mythology where the sirens come from) will interact with each other and Edward Armitage’s painting The Siren. This sounds intriguing and I want to see how it works. Unlike most of the other works, this installation will have a strong audio element.

David Jaques work North Canada – English Electric also has an audio element but we were unable to hear it. There are two stereoscopic viewers, a Victorian 3D invention created by overlapping two slightly different images through the viewer.

Although only two viewers are set up, the wall is adorned with masses of the image plates. The black and white industrial landscapes is compelling as social history but the work is also structured well so the collection as a whole is visually attractive.

Across from the room is a cabinet filled with bottles in another work by Alec Finlay. Each one has an essential oil in it written as an Acrostic poem. It invites you to look into the cabinet and the poems are more intriguing than the mere cabinet display itself.

David Jaques work Por Convencion Ferrer charts a fictitious conference and journey of a Spanish anarchist through Liverpool. He’d visited Liverpool in 1908 but without the notes, I wouldn’t understand this from the work. The meetings are advertised on silken pennants that suggest a link with the trade unions and their banners and hang together as a collection of finally made banners – although I understood the concept, this side of the exhibit was a little lost on me. But it does stand on its own as a visual piece.

The final exhibit on show is a huge number of works which make a bigger piece. Lubaina Himid’s Jelly Mould Pavillions is something you could spend hours looking at and still find something new that catches your eye. It’s made from a number of jelly moulds, each one designed very differently meaning you can appreciate each mould as a separate work as well as the vista created by the piece as a whole.

The work has railway set models added to it, giving the jelly moulds a human context. A range of interesting characters from balloon sellers to sailors to children to adults have been carefully placed on the exhibit interacting with the moulds. There are also trees and cars adding to the scene.

One more element is the plans of the exhibition are laid out. These pictures contain the backstories for each mould. The notes suggest the exhibit tells something about the afro-British culture created from the migrant communities. There is certainly an African feel to some of the moulds, but it’s not a forthright display of black culture, more a collection of themes many of which reflect that side of the work.

This is my view, and I think I’ve sounded more like a critic than a voice of the common man (the later my intention). I can be sceptical of the installation lead art shown in galleries. A pile of bricks in a Burges art gallery didn’t move me at all, neither did a black square. But these works did on the whole connect with me. It is hard to comment fully on the work in an uncompleted form. Those who I met had their own views about The Northern Art prize which lead to a discussion on why the art seemed thematic and how the selection processed was reached. I’m certainly looking forward to returning to see the completed work and getting the full impact.

If you’re not the usual art goer, this is accessible and child friendly to a degree. There will be more to see and hear than I’ve described and best of all it is free to wonder round if you’re looking for some respite from the weather or the Christmas shopping over the next month or so.

Hopefully it will inspire the region’s artists in the same way that Liverpool has inspired the artists on display. With the opening of the Hepworth Gallery next May and a number of artistic projects being set up, it certainly is an exciting time for art in Yorkshire and the North. If that happens, hopefully the general public will also be able to get more involved reclaiming the arts from an elitist persuit.

You can find out more about the the Northern Art Prize, follow the event on twitter or use the hashtag #northernartprize

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

At the hub of Leeds community

The Leeds Community News Hub held its first forum at Trinity and All Saints University College in an event bringing together journalists, bloggers, community groups, charities and those interested in their locality.

The presentation by Meg Pickard of the Guardian might have been on the changing nature of media and the need to engage with the wider community, but the overall theme was very much about connecting; connecting not only people, but technology, data and content.

A joint venture between the college (or is it a university) and the Guardian, the hub throws the doors open to the school of journalism. The media courses ground students in community engagement, but the hub switches this around offering community based projects the ability to gain expert knowledge from the hub (not just from Trinity). For example, a community project might work with journalism students to help work on a news story relevant for a small locality but not gaining the attentions of the wider regional press.

Sarah Hartley, who is in charge of the guardian local projects in Leeds, Edinburgh and Cardiff, discussed the need to be more collaborative and bring together multiple points of view and contribution to a story – much in the way that wikis work – to bring a greater insight to a news story. She also discussed the use of space. So far the Guardian local project has been focused on virtual space and the Guardian Leeds blog. The new forum events bring the event into the real world and help those who might not actually blog or tweet.

I’ve seen Meg Pickard speak before. She is an engaging speaker with a passion for her subject. Not a journalist but a social anthropologist by trade; I wanted to see what had changed since I last spoke to her.

It started much in the same way her last talk did – the discussion around a picture of a bus stop. Are these people in a queue for the bus a community? The answer is potentially – there share many things in common but equally they are all different as well. If they begin to chat about the weather, the lateness of the bus or something quite random they start to engage in a community which will grow if they visit the site on a regular basis. Their journey does not affect who they are and their passions, but they might find other like minded person on their bus route. Or not.

She used Jake McKee’s definition of community:

A group of people who form relationships over time by interacting regularly around contexts which are of interest to all of them for various individual reasons.

However, Meg added this definition was loose as what constitutes time, relationships, what a group is or what is of interest. In the words of Mark Zuckenberg: “Communities already exist”. |what this means is it is a lost cause to ‘create’ a community. Echoing words I’d heard last week at TEDxLeeds, community projects often ignore the infrastructure and the people already there and are intent to overlay a new template to create a new community – often in failure. People are passionate about things for a reason and that’s what binds them. You can’t make some interested.

It is easy to “create content” and to consume it, but if something is driven by a passion, you want to do more with that information. You can react to, curate and create new content but not everyone will have the passion to do all. While some will read an article and move on, others will vote on a discussion, fewer will added the link to their twitter site and fewer people will be moved enough to blog about it.

But why do people do any of these things? There has to be a reward for it; a greater sense of being a member, an ego massage for someone wanting to be influential, a channel for venting your spleen or just an interest being sated by reading an article and doing no more.

The mechanics of a story also have to be in place. This is not just words. Increasingly it is pictures, video, sound and data flows. It is also a community voice.

Meg then discussed how crowdsourcing can play a valuable part in modern journalism. She gave the example of how the Guardian opened up the expenses documents for MP and got people to engage with them. It meant 27,000 people helped identify the stories within the expenses scandal through varying layers of engagement. Some clicked on poll buttons which basically said nothing of interest to interesting information.

This created a filter for the journalists to investigate further. Others wrote notes on what they believed they had uncovered.

One student challenged Meg on the exploitation of the public, but the response is that journalistic rigour has to be behind the opening up of the story. The motivation of the individuals was to gain the information and feel a buzz from uncovering a scoop. (I remember doing this and finding not a dicky bird on my local MP). It would be possible to exploit people, but it would be short-lived as people would not help again.

The contribution moved to mutualisation and citizen journalism. By this Meg meant the involvement of multiple groups in creating news. Rather than an editor commissioning a story, researching it and publishing it, a more organic model sees opportunities to engage, contribute and react to news, creating additional news angles that could not be opened up in other ways. But the editor needs to remain to determine fact from fabrication and to ensure the information is the right side of the law.

A case study of @abc_investigates on twitter demonstrated that community needs a context. The Australian TV channel offered the opportunity to have people’s questions answered. They meant investigative journalism questions. The public sent questions about odd socks. Only by further engagement did the account work by demonstrating it meant it would investigate trading standards and council abuses.

But the point of community is that what is relevant to me isn’t relevant to many. I’ve often pondered the failure of Social media is that it pigeon holes you into twitter lists, Facebook friend connections and LinkedIn colleagues even though you may have multiple ‘lives’. Am I the communications manager, the father, husband, football fan, rower, media law geek or ... I could go on but I hope you get the point.

The Danger is that we pigeon-hole audiences and communities and, worse, mix up the difference between opinion and fact.

What will community groups gain from this forum? I think it’s an understanding of where they fit into the story and encouragement that their voice can be heard. If the hub is to work, they will need much more support. In my mind the community groupings need to be identified and a way of bringing them together needs to happen. This includes new media, the forum and other events.

The problem is these groups are not obvious and it will take time for people to get involved. Equally there is an issue of creating an infrastructure to enable people to talk without imposing one that disrupt the existing infrastructure. Equally, it will need to be easy to involve as many people as possible.

The advantage is that an art exhibition in Beeston might be able to link to the Leeds art community, to the locals in the area, to people interested in the subject matter rather than art – and Leeds can benefit from people coming together to talk. Isn’t that what community really means?

(Picture courtesy of

Monday, 15 November 2010

The Joke

In a television interview, Milan Kundera’s first book, The Joke, was described as an indictment of Stalinism. The author was quick to respond pointing out that the book was nothing more than a love story. The English language version has since been retranslated and edited to ensure the love story is as obvious in this language as in Kundera’s original version.

For those unfamiliar with the book, a young man living in communist Czechoslovakia writes a note, heavy in irony, in which he praises Trotsky. The authorities intercept this message and take it seriously. His life and love is affected for ever as he is expelled from the communist party and all the disadvantages this brings.

Kundera had already been expelled from the communist party and the banning of his work in his homeland later lead him to live in Paris. Despite Kundera’s view, the book is seen in the same way as 1984 or The Trial as a warning over the interference of the state over the rights of the individual’s life.

In another review suggests “This novel exposes the dangers of living in a humourless world

Why am I talking about his book? Because of a case that mirrors the story. At its heart is a love story. An English young man starts talking to a girl in Northern Ireland using social media. The couple fall in love, and the Englishman arranges to meet her.

A few days before he is due to fly, it snows. It snows heavily and the UK infrastructure grinds to a halt. Robin Hood airport, where he is due to fly from, is closed and he writes a note on Twitter to show his frustration to his friends.

Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You've got a week to get your shit together, otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!!

Five days, later he’d forgotten he’d even typed the message but wheels had been set in motion. An off-duty manager at the airport did a search and discovered the message. He did nothing initially, but thought he’d pass it on to his line manager. His line manager saw it as a harmless comment, but, was duty bound to send it to the police. The police saw the message believed it to be of no threat but felt duty bound to check it out. They visited the young man who apologised, showed regret for his comment and cooperated with the Police. They found nothing to indicate this man was a threat.

So far it’s reasonable and proportionate. Then the story takes a twist when the CPS gets hold of the report. Despite no-one seeing this as anything more than a rash statement, the CPS decides to prosecute. Terrorism laws do not cover the tweet as the standard of proof would require some sort of intent. The CPS turns to section 127of the Communications Act 2007, an extension on a law based to protect telephone operators from receiving abusive calls. The 1930s based law added in communications that are electronic.

Despite the “joke” not being seen as menacing by the Police or the airport, two trial judges have ruled the comments were not just “menacing” but “obviously so” and that the public could not see the message as anything else. Context of the comment seems to be irrelevant as does the possibility the comment may have more than one meaning. The meaning implied by the judge, devoid of irony and humour, is the one that stands.

The young man has, as a result of the trial, lost his job and been fined by the courts. He is still unemployed – although he is now living with the Northern Irish girl he struggled to meet almost a year ago.

So far tens of thousands on social media have strongly disagreed with the Judge. Personally, I totally disagree but then I’m not a judge. What is worrying is that the law sets precedent for communications on this medium.

Regular users of twitter will have encountered the problem of misreading someone else’s tweet. The difficulty is in implying tone to words written down. The comedian David Schneider described how he’d tweeted a joke about wishing they could grow apples which didn’t have stickers on them. He received a reply from someone pointing out that the apples had stickers added after the pick process.

Companies have been caught out on twitter from Vodaphone to Habitat. Those in the spotlight get caught out with ill-judged comments, mistakes and worse. Next time you tweet, “I could murder for a cold drink now” you’ll have to think twice. Most of all it seems that the state has lost its sense of humour.

So just be careful if you’re quoting John Betjeman’s Slough or Dr Feelgood's Boom Boom lyrics as the law may see it differently. The state sees fit to interfere with notes and comments with no intent or no impact, just as in The Joke. A book once held up as ludicrous behaviour, possible only under the communist regime, is now reality in the self same country which made the comment.

Even if this isn’t the thin end of the wedge, it affects those linked with communications and might lead to a less engaging and more safety first approach. This does no-one any good.

However it effects us, though, this is a love story between a boy and a girl which the State feels desperate to interfer with.

Friday, 12 November 2010

TEDx and the City (Leeds) Part 2

The second half of TEDxLeeds opened with Stuart Childs Eulogising of Audioboo. Although Stuart uses it in a different way to me, I’ve been a firm admirer of Audioboo. The application accessible on iphones and the web, enables you to record up to five minutes of speech or sound and post it like a blog.

On one level it is a podcast platform but it is something much more creative as well. Stuart made the comment that its founder Mark Rock created it after lamenting that he never recorded the speech of his grandmother after she died.

I hadn’t realised this when I met Mark Rock at a Connect Yorkshire event in Sheffield when he was a key speaker at one of the organisation’s events. As I used to be in radio, I totally get the power of sound and the theatre of the mind. Why not just have video with pictures? Because the pictures are better on radio.

It is a different medium and we are a visual society that we sometimes forget the power of the US radio production of HG Wells War of the Worlds, the power of hearing the Bradford City fire by the match commentator that day or the brilliance of someone like Kenny Everett in editing sounds together to produce radio comedy.

Stuart likes collecting sounds and discussed how they are emotive. The sound of your school bell, the public transport, the ambience of a workplace, factory, market or city centre. What we don’t get is the sense of how this changes. Would we recognise the sound of Leeds in 20-30 years time? My father grew up in Leeds but had been away from the city for a long time before I came back and he noticed a distinct change in the Leeds accent.

This brought him on to the UK Sound Map, a project to collect sounds as memories and historical documents. What might not seems important now, might be valuable to historians or social commentators in the future.

I see there’s a strong use for Audioboo as a tool to interview and store information. Seeing as it is a week of remembrance, we have just lost are last WW1 veterans and there is a value of collecting the stories of those involved in the second world war from Bletchley Park to the Coventry Blitz to soldiers and those whose lives were affected at home.

The next presentation was a video from Pranar Misore who flipped the concept of bringing the real world into the digital world, by discussing how the digital world can be brought into the real world.

What I found interesting was the way he discussed how we can bring objects into gestures – much in the way the ipad is touch screen rather than using an interface like a mouse. He took this a stage further suggesting gestures are also memes. We all know what thumbs up means, a salute or handshake. In this way we can make technology more intuitive and allow is to interact with the physical world by overlaying some 6th sense devices to help us retain information or interpret the real world.

Matt Edgars talk was well prepared and presented, linking the historic industrial past with the now. He did this without really referring to the digital industries of Leeds, or his own part in creating innovative avatar and social media products at Orange.

His first champion was Louis and Lizzy Le Prince who used the ‘new media’ of chemistry to create the first films, linking technology from photography and ticket dispensing to create something revolutionary. He discussed how the standardisation of pins lead to an open source platform where textile factories could construct looms with the knowledge of knowing they could get the right pins supplied.

He discussed the innovation of the steam engine in Leeds, created by the abundance of the right raw materials and the way Leeds used the inspiration of others to build the corn exchange, the Temple Works and the Florentine tower.

He suggested these were good tales to inspire Leeds but that there were other claims on the individuals. The power of the good story is to show how innovation occurs and suggested Leeds needs to be inspired and aspire to the greatness of these people in the past to develop the new technological future.

He mentioned Charles Leadbetter’s six Cs which further illustrate the point:
• Combination
• Conversation
• Challenge
• Commitment
• Connection
• Co-evolution

The final speaker was Rahid Parmar from IBM. I took very little in the way of notes during his presentation on smarter cities but I did make plenty of notes on my thoughts.

My notes consist mainly on the fact that there are over a billion transistors per
human on the planet, a figure 10 times the number of grains of rice. I also noted that technology isn’t about making better machines, but about people. We make better vacuum cleaners to give us more leisure time and less dust irritation, not just because we can.

He also made a point about the vastness of technology and technological change, noting that grandparents at a family birthday didn’t understand how teenagers talked using social media on their phones. Now, I’d argue you could say that of many ages and this isn’t unique to the present day.

Another tale told of how a bad plane flight by his son lead to two plane companies following him on twitter and the power that social interaction has for both consumers and companies if used well.

I noted on the time that the law has to catch up with technology sometimes and misinterpretation comes, just like the Paul Chambers Twitter Joke Trial. I had no idea this point would be magnified just a day later by the appeal court ruling.

Rahid also kept banging on about apples. He made a point that the average apple in the UK has travelled 3,700 miles and this wasn’t right. I have some sympathy of the view. I remember a news story about how UK fish was sold to French wholesalers before being sold back a day later to the UK, an odd and needless shipping of goods purely for financial gain of a few.

But there was no justification or understanding of the apples he was passionate about. Is it more economical to grow in bulk in New Zealand, the US or South Africa and transport than to grow them closer to home? Is it because we value choice and certain varieties can’t be produced in the UK?

Equally it is a simple statement which would involve huge amounts of cultural and economic change to bring about. The UK apple industry is a fraction of what it was and the cheap imports have led to a terminal decline in the number of orchards in this country. Even in places like Herefordshire, there are moribund orchards which would need decades of support to resurrect.

This isn’t to say we don’t invest in apple production or favour the British apple – but it sounds more greenwash than a considered statement. There is a difference between the long and the short term gain. Many of the government cuts offer short term gain, with the promise of long term benefits. But some of the more ill-conceived cuts ignore long term growth created by investment in education and innovation ( the cuts made to the Film Council for example).

My other thoughts were around the drivers for change. Rahid suggested it centred on issues (a resource that is unsustainable), investment (changes made in London ahead of the Olympics) and inspiration (finding a better way)

He suggested the future will also see more pressure on basic utilities and we had to look how to do things differently. He added that even in the UK we might come under growing water shortages with a growing population in ever more densely packed cities. The focus should not be about providing better transport or education, but on seeing what individuals need and trying to empower their own health and happiness. That said, solving the problems with the Kirkstall road would make my life healthier (less stress) and happier.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

TEDx and the City (Leeds) Part 1

Emotional memory and the empowerment of individuals through open data sources seemed to be the theme of the third TEDx conference in Leeds, held in The Mint in Holbeck.
The following is a mixture of my notes and thoughts following the event.

Megan Smith, a visual artist originally from Canada, opened TEDxLeeds with an emotive and personal journey from Ottawa to Armley.

It started with a map of where she grew up, with a singular arterial road. Points of reference were drawn based on memories and people. This in itself was visually interesting as a piece of art, but it wasn’t the aim of the image.

Her journey continued there the discovery of Canada and her disillusionment caused by a heavy handed response to a peaceful demonstration she was observing and the subsequent government denials of the event.

Her journey then takes us to Leeds where she felt the need to discover her new surroundings. The more densely packed urban environment means that she felt it would be harder to understand the area in the same way.

Using blogs, mobile technology, social mapping and GPS in 2005, she embarked on a project to collect suggestions of things to do, see and events to experience in Leeds. The project not only helped her to discover Leeds but also enabled other people to discover the more secret side of Leeds that some locals might not even know.

This emotional mapping offers something more than geography, enabling people to come together to share experiences.

She left us with a lesson from Peruvian Economics. You can’t change the world – but you can have an impact on how people experience it.

The second presentation by Julian Tait dovetailed neatly, further exploring emotional mapping. Using the sat nav as an example, he suggested that it guides us through the landscape without reference to names, places, historical places of interest, experiences, memories and much more.

He started, though with a history lesson contrasting two ideas of the state – in the United Kingdom the nation state based on the ‘vulgar’ English as a common language and the empowerment through knowledge and learning. The other situation was the Italian city states which had free trade and exchange of ideas that gave rise to the renaissance.

The use of emotion mapping (following people round cities with monitors to gauge emotional response) can show how people feel about it. Responses to leisure and environment are not the whole story as we spend time in work or doing tasks that aren’t enjoyable. By seeing how good and bad experience map themselves, we can start to see how we can improve the cityscape.

The opening up of data means that other forms of maps can be created and shared. A UK company can now make maps of trees in San Francisco without ever having been there. Centres of data are being created in an echo of the renaissance. In the Britain the renaissance came later due to the difference in language.

The problem is that the American, Canadian, European standards of data capture and use are different using different systems and a common language is needed to empower the masses.

Susan Williamson breathed a strong breathe of fresh air into the world of retail marketing analytics and understanding trends.

Her approach is different from the majority in this area. Instead of looking for broad statistics looking for shallow trends, she advocates looking very narrowly at a few people to get a deeper and richer understanding.

Rather than a tick box approach to finding out what people like, it’s about finding out what individuals really do and why they behave in that way. It is an approach I used when in radio. Rather than look at the ABC figures, think of a particular listener and talk directly to them.

Retail is about finding the right mix of products for a particular space and this doesn’t have to stop in the real world. Space can also be virtual. It might be easier to find the pub regular who has seen the establishment over 40 years than a user of a website set up three years ago but it is possible.

An idea needs to be visualised and brought into the reality of the shopper or user.

A case study on Rolex saw the company look to capitalise on the Bond brand. The Rolex comes well down the list of essential Bond items so a good idea misses its target. The way to capitalise is to look further up that list and use the Bond brand that purchasers might think was pure Bond – like gadgets.

Rather than thinking about aisles and psychological theory, you to understand what goes on in a buyer’s mind and give them what they want rather than what you want to sell. It sounds simple but is far from simple.

Another case study showed how a council wanted to develop a cultural centre. They proposed building a new facility and targeted certain groups they felt would benefit. Actually talking to people meant they realised there was no need for any buildings. Assumptions about venues, accessibility and the knowledge locals had were far from the mark as were assumptions about what they wanted.

A cultural quarter turned in to something that more resembled a cockroach and the emphasis on whom the events were for changes too. And not one new building was created as the venues already existed.

The final session in the first half saw Usman Haque talk about Pachube and how his business has been created out of a need to create inter-connectivity. But Usman was clear the ‘smart’ technology was nothing without the intelligence of the user. To have a smartphone doesn’t make you smart but using a smartphone might enable use to use its feature to your advantage if you understand the technology.

On one level Usman was unsure of what Pachube (pronounced Patch Bay)actually offers but on another level he knew it was about making sensors and devices easily accessible, often using six sense technology.

Six sense technology enables users to view a virtual world laid on top of the real world on devices like iPads or phones. Point the device at a temperature sensor and you can read the temperature not only now, but over the last day, week or month.
By making the data sources connect with easy to read dashboards, you can help various data streams come together to make a new improved service. I personally thought of two services that did this – Traffic-i which uses the data from the highways agency to offer real time traffic services and the Weather Pixie, a great site using weather station data and mashing them into avatar weather pixies who tell you the weather conditions.

But he advocated going one step further, may be offering a logistics firm details about traffic and weather to better predict their delivery schedules.
People also want to do different things with data and the tools have to offer different services:

• Visualisation – showing what the data means
• Controlling – enable users to vary a sensor or device depending on the results
• Mapping/tracking
• Pipes/ mashing – bringing two sets of data together to form a new stream
• Output tools and alerts
• Feeds and search functions
• Mobile applications
• Augmented reality
• The ability to query data

There is also an element of democratising data that is often lost. Creating such links shows how other people can use your data in new ways to produce new services which may help you – or just help others. For example, seeing how much energy a company uses might lead to people being able to suggest how you can lower your energy costs and save money. Relationships can be created between diverse groups can take place creating horizontal integration.

Co-operation and democratisation isn’t straight forward. I agree with the principle but in reality it can be used by pressure groups to sling mud rather than help, but at the same time my view is it’s worth the risks. It is the same argument with opening communications channels and the fear and risks are often never realised whilst the benefits are greater than first thought.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Is the web destroying our language?

Ben Kingsley seems to think so.

At The People Speak event, he suggested digital distractions in “the cyber planet we’re now living in” has resulted in ever decreasing attention spans. He blamed the internet for stopping many people being able to “think and speak in paragraphs”.
He said: “I’m here to share the power of the spoken word and the resilience and beauty of the English language. I’m concerned about the disintegration of our sublimely beautiful language, which is the spine of our culture and has produced the greatest dramatists ever. You set that diamond against the trash that it’s becoming – it’s shocking. We have a language that’s like sprung steel and we’re turning it into chewing gum.”

My initial reaction to his comments was anger that someone so linked to the arts was denigrating the development of language and those who use digital platforms. Coming back to the statement, I thought I’d investigate several of the many points Ben throws up.

The rise and fall of the Attention Span

There is one point that looks credible. Attention spans are decreasing. There is certainly some evidence for this but looking closely at the studies, I’m not completely convinced by these arguments.

Many of the reports are by interested parties – a PR related study by Lloyds TSB Insurance for example; studies that compare now with the nineteenth century. The most recent study from the University of Iowa compared children who spent less than two hours in front of a screen with children who spent more than two hours.

When you add in computer time at school and a couple of TV programmes, I’d be hard pressed to find enough children who spend less than 2 hours of screen time.

The inference from this is that screen time is bad. It prevents you from doing something worthy like reading a book which will enrich your intelligence more. This in itself is a flawed concept. Reading Tolstoy or Dickens might be rewarding, but what if you read Mills and Boon? Is watching the latest documentary on natural history less valuable? Is viewing science or law blogs mind numbing and watching a play enriching?

The communications stream

What has changed is choice of entertainment. When I was growing up in the 80s and early 90s, music came from a limited number of radio stations or from tapes and then CDs. The internet was sparse and very slow. Mobile phones had the capacity to show a two colour screen and cost the earth. TV was restricted to 3 or 4 channels. Communications were more concentrated.

What the bombast of Kingsley ignores is that communication has become broader meaning we have more choice to select what we want to hear. A diet of X-factor, Coronation Street and Facebook isn’t going to enrich me as much as watching the latest dramatic production on TV, reading the Jack of Kent blog and reading Dickens on a kindle (surely that’s screen time too).

There is a level of competition in the communications channels that means we can scan certain documents or programmes, but I was taught at University that whilst certain text should be read in full, others should be sped read to absorb the basic principles, so this approach is hardly un-academic.

A chewing gum language

Another implication is that language is being eroded by this digitisation. I disagree. Let’s go back to the 80s when many children spent a huge amount of time playing manic miner and watching the limited TV. Is this more likely to produce good language skills than the teenager of today, able to discover interesting content online in seconds?

We often assume people sink to the lowest denominator, but that isn’t a correct assumption. Equally we all enjoy a guilty pleasure from time to time and I’m sure there is something extremely low brow which Kingsley enjoys.

One thing that marks the best wordsmiths out is a strong vocabulary. A written vocabulary isn’t the same as a spoken vocabulary but being surrounded by a rich environment of language is important. Churchill used a vast number of different words.

Using social media and engaging in dialogue is different from being a passive observer. Responding to twitter users means we have to develop our own language skills.

A simple hashtag game might not be to everyone’s liking, but to play you do need mental dexterity a good vocabulary and an understanding of culture. On message boards, I’ve come across a lot of pedantry when it comes to language and it also teaches you a lot about argument, even if you’re discussing football. A clear, concise argument using good grammar will be more persuasive than a poorly worded answer. It will also prevent a quick putdown purely based on the poor grammar.

Equally, if I’m putting together an argument, I can search for pithy quotes in seconds.

The evolution of language

I doubt Ben Kingsley tends to speak in iambic pentameter all the time. Even Shakespeare understood that you could change mood, impart meaning and change the dynamic of a play by breaking structure. Just look at a play like Anthony and Cleopatra where grand speeches use rhyming couplets while private conversations use coarse and common language. Equally Shakespeare would not have recognised the words or spoken like Chaucer.

We no longer speak like those in the 1940s, but neither did the Victorians. That’s the genius in the Armstrong and Miller Airmen sketches. They use the homophonic similarities of the 1940s and youth speech to juxtapose the difference in attitudes. If you look at American English, it is rooted in the past and actually has an older form of English at its heart. Which is more correct? Whatever you say, I’ll never say the word ‘gotten’.

Equally, language evolves through fashion, the need for terminology and use. Watch the Monkees TV programme of the 60s and see if the fashionable language there is still in use. I remember a cartoon called Rude Dog and the Dweebs- who uses those terms now (NB Dog referred to a canine and isn’t the same as calling someone a ‘Dwag’).

Shakespeare is one of the great innovators in language and you can’t critise the modern generation for changing the language and praise the dramatic greats in the same breath. You might tar computer users with the LOL generation of talking by writing GR8 rather than great, but even that language is functional. Although there are certainly people who will write in that way, many use the longer forms in tweets or text because they prefer to, reducing only when they see little option.

To sum up

There are issues with the use of technology and the written and spoken language. Some of these are related to schooling. But to denounce technology is to deny the future and ignore their potential. Ben Kingsley’s comments come across as cheap and from someone who does not engage with technology in way that many now do. The last five years have seen massive advancements in communication technology and to consign these changes as not important doesn’t help his own cause. It makes his argument weak, high brow and non-exclusive. To win, he needs to make people listen by engaging with the very people he feels aren’t living up to his expectations.

Image curteousy of

Friday, 5 November 2010

The Utility of Communication

The problem with communication is the subjective nature of a message. Even if the message is good and honest, the perception or miscommunication can lead to big problems. An article that demonstrates this is here where web administrators failed to realise that Pen Island can be misread in a URL.

It can be as simple as not looking directly at someone important when talking to them, the method of message delivery or other conflicting messages.

I always remember the Macclesfield Express with a front page headline splash of Double stabbing after family row right next to Cheshire Police celebrate drop in crime figures. The second story might be true, but it seems insensitive and crass despite the force not having any idea the two news items would appear on the same page.

The way the communications industry gets around this is by measuring sentiment. This isn’t perfect in itself. As well as the additional cost of in depth analysis, some systems are automated picking words with emotion without checking whether there is irony implied by that word. If done by a real person, one person’s perception could be different from another.

Now although it is possible to measure and evaluate the effectiveness of communications, it isn’t always done and it is not always the main business focus.

In economics, there is a similar problem – how do you measure the feel good factor as happiness affects confidence and the decision to invest. They came up with the express utility which is the amount of happiness someone derives from a good or service.

Why is this relevant you may ask? The reason is that in the downturn cuts are made to reduce costs to minimise the impact on income. There’s an excellent TEDx presentation by Chip Conley showing how a hotel came out of a downturn by looking at making his workforce and guests happier rather than cutting the costs. It marked the company out as more than your standard hotel delivering a service.

Communication is a key area where cuts can be made. In the film Up in the air, there is the dichotomy where a firm of HR consultants, taken on to fire employees, shows its humanity by rejecting video link technology even though it saved costs. No one wants to hear they’ve broken up with someone by text or that they’ve lost their job via email. But it does happen regularly.

Companies can see communications as a soft target for sales without looking at what the function of the role is and how maintaining a good reputation can be valuable to retaining business. Equally I’ve noticed some very good communications campaigns being hamstrung by clients scaling back projects to a point where a good idea is made pointless by missing the key element of the proposal.

In difficult trading conditions I’d argue communications is more important. There is a difference between finding cheaper ways of getting a message across and falling between the two stools of a highly creative campaign without the funding. Without it how do your customers know how hard you work, the great people you employ, the innovations you’ve created and the care you deliver to each one of them.

(pictures courtesy of