Category Archives: Technology

Out for the Count: What I learned At the Election Counts.

It’s now over a week since the count for the general election. I’d not been to an election count before; now I’ve been to two in five weeks. The first was the count for the City of Edinburgh council elections, the second the count for the general election, which was called part way through the council campaign, for the five Edinburgh constituencies. The two counts were in the same place, the halls of Meadowbank stadium. (The general election counts are commonly at Ingilston, but that was already booked for the garden show.) They had a lot in common, but were also very different.

The council elections in Scotland are run under the single transferable vote proportional system. City of Edinburgh council wards each have three or four councillors, and voters rank as many candidates as they want, from 1 up to the number of candidates. If your preferred first candidate is knocked out, your vote goes to your second preference, and so on. And if your first choice is elected, any “surplus votes” for that candidate are also transferred.

The maths in this can be quite daunting – for instance, surplus votes can consist of second or third preferences which need to be reallocated. Complicated. Fortunately it is done by computer. I have no idea how the programmes work, but there is an audit trail. You can even follow the votes flow from one candidate to another.

Here’s his the count worked. It was the day after the election – very civilised. They start with postal votes. Postal ballots from each ward, or perhaps voting area (a division of a ward – each voting area has a single polling place, where you cast your vote) are out on a table and unfolded. Representatives from political parties frantically try to record the votes as they are unfolded, because they can get useful data on how the poll went and where people voted. (As it happens, this was a complete waste of time, because the data shared by the council included all that. Whether it does every time I’m not sure – people were surprised at the level of detail released, down to voting area. Each ward has about 35 pages of data – you can download PDFs from the Edinburgh council elections, should you choose to do so; I presume other councils in Scotland are equally open with their results.)

The same is then done for all the ballots placed in person into a ballot box – when you actually go and vote in person. The party representatives again frenetically try to record the data. The ballot papers are counted, and the number of ballots reconciled – each polling place knows how many papers were given to voters and those left unused.

All the ballot papers are placed in a cardboard box and taken to a scanner. There are several scanners so that the ballots from a whole ward can be scanned more or less simultaneously. The ballots are scanned at great speed. An image of each ballot paper is kept, the number of images reconciled to the number of ballots.

Computers read each image, and record the votes, from, say, 1 to 8 (if there are eight candidates). Any images that can’t be read satisfactorily are brought up in a screen, in public, where the candidates, their agents, and the council staff agree on the voter’s intent, if they can.

There are quite a few spoilt papers. Most were because critters had not used numbers to rank candidates, but other marks, such as an X. If only one such mark was used, that vote counts – the voter’s intention was clear. But if they had marked an X beside two or more candidates, no intent could be inferred, and the ballot paper was spoilt. Similarly if one number was used more than once to rank candidates, the rest of the votes were spoilt: if a voter ranked candidates 1, 2, 3, 3, 4, 4, 4 votes 1 and 2 were counted, the rest discarded.

Sometimes voters spoilt their papers in more imaginative ways. There are some who drew penises in the paper; a single penis might be taken as intent (perhaps against the voter’s real intent), more than one would be spoilt. One voter drew frowning smileys in each box. (I did wonder if a single smiling face amongst them would have been acceptable.) My favourite was the voter who wrote beside each candidate their view of their attractiveness; I thought “pure belter” should have been taken as an indicator of preference, but this wasn’t the common view.

The computers did the hard mathematical work, council staff the hard physical work and managing the count, including the machines. The whole thing was very efficient, and open – it was a very well run process. I was impressed: it maintained an audit trail between a voter casting their vote on paper through digitisation to the final digital result. Some enterprising people have even taken the data and produced animations, so you can see how the votes were cast and allocated in any ward in Scotland: it is very impressive.

The general election count last week was also very well run. But completely analogue. I was surprised by the importance of rubber bands and PostIt™ notes in the process, as will become apparent. I don’t doubt the result at all, but the reliance on paper when it is clear better, more rigorous methods (such as scanning the ballot papers) exist seems baffling and archaic. And since it is done immediately after the vote, starting at 10pm, everyone is exhausted, too.

Here’s how it went. Ballot papers (either postal or in person) are unfolded from a ballot box and put into bundles of fifty, secured by a rubber band and signed off on a PostIt by the person counting it. Someone else counts the bundle to check it really is a bundle of fifty rather than 48 or 52, and (if it is) countersigned on the PostIt. All the bundles are counted up, with the last balancing (less than fifty) so that the number of votes front each ballot box is known. This is then reconciled to the number of papers handed out and those returned, ensuring the integrity of the ballot and giving the turn out in each voting area.

Whilst the ballot papers are being unfolded, party representatives are once again busy recording what votes they can see. This time it’s really important – because there are no digital results by voting area: no results but the final one. No data analysis is provided, because everything is on paper. Entirely analogue.

Once all the votes are bundled and counted, the counters are given a hard earned break and a sandwich.

Then it’s back to the bundles. The bundles are sorted by candidate (in our representative democracy, you vote for a candidate not a party), with piles of votes for each candidate. The party representatives keep eagle-eyes on this bit of the process, making sure their candidate’s votes don’t get put on their rival’s pile. (They don’t care if a rival’s vote gets put on their pile, obviously.) Except that the party representatives have been up since 5am and it’s now 2am and most of us were hallucinating by this time anyhow, and just wanted it all to stop.

Spoilt ballot papers are weeded out at this point. On some it apparent what was intended – for instance, where a voter uses a number rather than a cross, or a cross was placed next to the candidate’s name rather than in the box. Some were blank; one had “wankers” scrawled through the candidates’ names. Others had “none of the above” added.

Each pile is then counted – into bundles of fifty, secured by a rubber band, and signed off on a PostIt™. And then counted again to make sure, and countersigned. The numbers for each candidate in each ballot box are not released, though it would be possible to work it out if one wasn’t knackered.

All the bundles are then moved to a central table, and piled up beneath signs for each candidate. It was pretty easy to see how close the vote was. The biggest pile is the winner. These piles are counted to give the final result. This is why, when there’s a recount, the numbers of votes often change in steps of fifty. And why that change can be significant. I heard that in one English constituency, a recount had found an additional 1000 votes: presumably 20 bundles had been transferred to the wrong pile, and the error only discovered when a recount was requested. (This is why it is important that party representatives tally up votes as ballot papers are unfolded: whilst you can’t see every paper, you do see a sample, and added up across all the ballot boxes, each party had a pretty good idea of the result before it is announced.)

The thing is, this is all done by tired people. It is easy to imagine mistakes being made. There are many recounts, sometimes because mistakes are made (and corrected) sometimes because the result is so close. In Fife North East, a few miles north of the Edinburgh, there were several recounts: in the end the majority was just two votes; if three people has stayed in from the rain, the result might have been different. (I wonder if there are many people in Fife feeling guilty that they didn’t vote; or pleased that they did. They know their votes count.)

Being at two election counts so close together, using different systems, has strengthened my view of democracy: but it is has also reinforced my belief that our parliamentary democracy would be better served by a proportional system, like that used in Scottish local elections. Seeing those piles of votes, each ballot paper bearing a representation of a voters views – and most of them are ignored. The winner-takes-all result of first past the post, as well as analogue method of counting, feel like something from the nineteenth century (as indeed they are), rather than a twenty first century means of electing are representatives – in which most votes don’t count.

Advertisements

Design.

I listen to the radio. I listen to the radio in bed. So I have a clock-radio.

For many years, I had a Pure Siesta DAB radio. I liked it a lot: it worked well, it sounded good, and it was easy to use.

Particularly, its buttons were clear and easy to use. Kind of important in the dark.

But then, about a year ago, it stopped working. I couldn’t work out why it wasn’t working, so I bought a replacement. I thought about just getting the same again, but decided instead to try something else.

So I bought a Roberts, since they had a good reputation.

This one. It’s called Dreamtime.

A much smoother, more stylish design. Sleek, streamlined even.

And almost immediately I found out it was awful to use. The buttons, sitting level with the surface, are impossible to differentiate in the dark. Not a single day went by when the radio didn’t make me swear at it. Not necessarily conducive to a restful night. I was forever hitting the wrong button, and there wasn’t a way to cancel the operation without switching it off. Sometimes hitting “Select” actually reset the default settings so I’d have to reset them to my preference.

It might have looked good, but the Dreamtime was a real nightmare to use. Whoever designed it hadn’t used it in the dark. I doubt if they had used it at all.

Last week I finally cracked, pushed over the edge by it dreadful way of working. And so, whilst it was functioning much as it always had, I decided to get myself a new clock radio.

I bought a John Lewis Spectrum Clock. This.

It is small, it is simple, and I love it. It doesn’t do anything flash, it sounds fine, and it is a joy to use, even in the dark. The buttons are clearly laid out in batches, and feel different. Not once have I hit the wrong button by mistake. It sounds fine, too.

I’m not sure what the lessons are here. Maybe that “good” design is far more than eye-catching design: design has to include function; and good-looking might not necessarily by good design.

Is the Message “Medium”?

“Medium is a new place on the Internet where people share ideas and stories that are longer than 140 characters and not just for friends. It’s designed for little stories that make your day better and manifestos that change the world.”

In the past couple of days, I’ve come across a few comments about Medium on Twitter and Facebook. I may have read some posts on it, as well. (Well, I have now. Several.)

I can’t quite work out what the offer is. It seems like yet another blogging platform, though perhaps one with some more social aspects. Building a circle of contacts – starting with Twitter followers and – or – Facebook friends, since you need to sign in with one or other of those.

Then you can add new Medium accounts you read – like following on WordPress, it would seem.

I began blogging on LiveJournal, which was a highly social space, but also public, too (if you cared to show your posts publicly; you can control who sees which posts). Since LJ was the place I first tried blogging, it set the standard, and in many ways its social features were way ahead of other platforms I looked at, such as Blogger, Blogspot – and WordPress. For instance, LJ had bested comments from the start of my experience with it, and when, a couple of years later, I wanted a more professional home for my blog, I couldn’t believe that comments couldn’t be relied to and nested. (WordPress brought that in a year or so later.)

Other platforms came along with similar ideas – like the now dead Posterous. But Facebook came to dominate the social side of posting, with the result that LJ has become a backwater, with little activity. It had started in California, I think, but has been sold on a couple times and is now owned by a Russian firm, I think.

Medium certainly looks good – LJ hasn’t changed much in the past few years, and looks dated (but since there are a huge number of user options and themes – just like WordPress – that may be my fault for not changing my layout). It is clean, smart – like a magazine. Actually, what it really remind me on is the social aggregator Flip, which looked great and was a joy to use – but did nothing that I needed it to do; it was just an extra space to log into.

So I can’t see what the killer function in Medium is. I’m sure I’ll be proved wrong and it will become apparent. Maybe the social drive to write and share in such a space will win through and resonate, in the same way LJ did, though it will be fighting the behemoth of Facebook there (though Medium seems to be about long form writing and collaboration rather than just sharing stuff. Maybe that’s just me.)

Still, a new space to keep an eye on.

“A Taste of Blue”: an exploration of synaestheisa.

I went to several talks during the science festival, some of which I might write about; but one which has really stuck in my mind was about synaesthesia, “A Taste of Blue”.

People with synaesthesia experience a cross over between their senses: things they see may cause them to hear something, or sounds may have a taste, or words a colour.

How they experience the world – their whole life, even – is thus very different from those without synaesthesia. It is also something I find incomprehensible, and I went along hoping to understand more.

It really was a fascinating evening. I found myself sitting next to the one synaesthete in the audience, who expressed her sorrow that most people can’t experience the world the way she does – she felt it added so much to her life.

There were three speakers: a geneticist, an interactive sound engineer, and an animator.

Kate Kucera works on the genetics of synaesthesia, and she talked about the science behind the condition. About 5% of the population are synaesthetic (other sources say about 1%, others that it is much rarer). It might be that there is a continuum in the way we experience the environment, with only those at one extreme of the continuum being synaesthetic.

Indeed, the way we respond to sounds suggests that everyone may be partly synaesthetic: nonsense words that Kucera tried out on the audience had a definite feel, with most people idetifying the same or similar characteristics to the sounds. (Perhaps onomatapoeia is in part an expression of synaesthesia?)

There is certainly a genetic component to synaesthesia: the condition runs in families. But the genetics is very complex, not surprising if one considers the complexity of our sensory systems and their processing in the brain.

The cause of synaesthesia is not understood, though it is believed to involve connections between different parts of the brain used for processing different senses. It has been suggested that everyone is born with synaesthesia and that babies are all synaesthetic – which may explain the dazzled way they look at the world! – but that most people lose the ability as their brains develop, just to enable them to adequately cope with all the sensory data they receive.

Augoustinos Tsiros looks at the way people use common sensory metaphors. This might suggest that we are all partly synaesthetic. For instance, we all use spatial metaphors to describe sound – such as “high” and “low”; we also use touch describe sound – hard, soft, rough, smooth. (I often talk about some jazz being jagged and angular.) We talk about someone having a “sweet voice”.

In experiments involving a variety of visual representations of sounds, it is easy to fit a specific sequence of sounds to an image

I’m not sure whether these are simply learnt metaphors – so common to have mass understanding – or an actual demonstration latent synaesthesia.

The star of the evening for me was animator Sam Moore. She has worked with several synaesthetes to produce an animation showing what it is like to have synaesthesia. It was stunning.

She was also full of great stories, such as one subject who had two forms of synaesthesia: colours produced sounds, sounds produced colours; but not the same sounds or colours. A red object, such as a traffic light, produced a specific sound, but that sound then created the experience of a different colour, producing a cascade of synaesthetic feedback.

Apparently a lot of synaesthetes are creative people: all of those that worked with Sam were, particular musicians. One of her subjects, a woodwind player, saw the sounds of string instruments as sludge-brown, which must have made orchestral playing unpleasant experience!

Moore’s film, “An Eyeful of Sound” was amazing. The world it visualised is how I imagine an LSD trip to be. It was gorgeous.

Synaesthesia poses a lot of questions of the way we perceive the world. We have a common assumption that share our senses – that when I see a colour you see the same thing. We have no way of knowing if that is true. Apparently synaesthetes are often not aware as they are growing up that they experience world in ways that may be greatly different their peers. Then they may learn to keep quiet about it, when as children they are told not to be stupid after describing their experience. It certainly sounds as if synaesthetes experience a richer world.

An Eyeful of Sound from Samantha Moore on Vimeo.

“Anarchists in the Boardroom”: It’s Not You, It’s Me!

I read Anarchists in the Boardroom towards the end of last year, and I have been trying to get my head around writing about it.

First, a disclosure. I know Liam Barrington-Bush, and we have had lots of conversations about the ideas in his book; he shared some early drafts of a couple of chapters with me. I know many of the people he has spoken to in researching this book, and have been involved in some of the very many stories he tells.

It comes as no surprise, then, that I agree with many of the ideas he has about the power of social media to change organisations, and the way people relate to them.

That said, though, I have some problems with this. Worse still, I think their problem is – ME. That hurts…

Let’s take a step back. Liam comes from a not-for-profit background, and his focus is on changing the not-profit sector. Specifically, he wants to stop the damage he sees done in the name of “professionalism”, which he feels stops organisations being more like people. (He calls his social media campaign #morelikepeople. I am not sure I completely agree with his thesis around this – lots of people do bad things; making organisations more like people doesn’t mean they’ll behave more responsibly. Even sociopaths are people…)

I come from twenty five years working within or for corporates – I’m part of the professional management class at which Liam lays the blame. I have professional qualifications and a business degree. So it’s not surprising that…

What I didn’t like about the book was that it wasn’t – professional! It has a chatty, informal style which, for me, obscured the benefit of the experiences Liam describes, and how others could use them and harness social media (together with flatter structures, open communication, autonomy, and emergent and contingent change) to be more effective.

I think the audience – and impact – of this book could be wider than the not-for-profits Liam is targeting. But to reach deeper into the corporate world, you need to talk their language, and I am not certain that those in (or who aspire to in) the corporate boardroom will pick up this book. The things that has driven Liam to write it – the desire for organisations to me “more like people” – to have a human feel, about communication rather than data – will stop them

This is of course a paradox: to access those able to bring about change (top down or – preferably – bottom up), one needs to become more like them – exactly what Liam is trying to get away from.

Many organisations and the professionals within them actively resist change. One of the powerful things about organisation culture – “the way we do things” – is that it acts as homeostat, bringing the organisation back to its core and, sometimes, preventing change. Culture acts to keep the organisation on course. Most of the time, we’re not even aware of an organisation’s culture – it is all the below the surface stuff that is so obvious to those within it that they are oblivious.

Most of all, culture is rarely questionned. What social media can do is create the space to open up communications. Liam gives several examples where senior executives have taken to Twitter (by its nature it facilitates conversations) and the effect it has had on them – by allowing their staff and customers direct access. Just using a medium like Twitter allows the informal organisation to change – and can subvert the culture. That’s one way it has the potential to change organisations.

Liam’s book covers all this; my main issue with it is that it probably won’t reach the people who I think need to read it.

Hearing Voices.

I have long not liked machines that talk. I don’t even like machines that beep at me, switching all system sounds off at the first possible opportunity. I think my attitude to voice interaction with computers was established by seeing “2001: A Space Oddity” as a child. HAL set my default reaction.

So when Ben Cowan spoke to Edinburgh Skeptics a couple of weeks ago on human-computer interaction, particularly voice activated systems like Apple’s Siri, it evoked a strong reaction.

I started using computers in the early 1980s: I first used a device (which I think must have been an Apple) as an undergraduate in1982; my postgrad work required me to use a mainframe for some stats, and I wrote my thesis on a BBC Micro. A keyboard was the only way to interact with these machines, and that could be very frustrating – with the mainframe, “interaction” could take hours, as the machine was very unresponsive. Feedback is powerful. They tried to talk to me – an irritated beep when they didn’t like something (which back in those days was often) – but one only talked back in frustration. Or anger. (Come on – who hasn’t sworn at their computer?!)

I first used a mouse in 1986, again on an Apple. But when I first started using PCs, the keyboard and command line was still the main way of interacting. I still use keystrokes rather than mouse actions for a lot programmes.

My experience of voice activated systems has been limited to supermarket self service systems and telephony systems. I hate self service checkout with a vengeance, largely down to the universally patronising tone of voice used. And my experience of telephony systems is similar to these poor miscreants, shown by Ben.

It’s not just Glaswegian accents – Birmingham City Council installed a voice activated telephony system which couldn’t recognise Brummie accents. They must have done extensive testing of that one!

And then of course there was HAL, lurking at the edge of my technological nightmares.

Perhaps it is a matter of control.

The thing is, voice interaction is becoming much more common. My phone and my tablet – both Android devices – have the ability to use voice activated systems (most commonly Google Now, which is the standard app). You’ve probably realised I’ve not tried them. It appears I’m not the only one.

But voice interaction systems are likely to become more common. As well as Siri and Google Now, Google Glass is voice activated. Satnav appears almost ubiquitous (though I of course abstain…).

I’m beginning to think this might be my problem rather than HCI’s, and Cowan explained why this might be. I’d say I have an issue with the aural “uncanny valley” (my words, not Cowan’s) – the closer to a human voice they sound, the stranger, more passive and downright unemotional – unhuman, even – they seem.

Cowan discussed some of the psychology that goes into this. There are rules in conversation – like “partners in a dance”, even if we’re not aware of the steps. We learn the steps as we learn to talk. Computers don’t. They have to be programmed, and at the moment those programmes are largely database driven and determinate. They work off keywords, rather than natural language. Instead, we fall into line with the machines: Cowan explained how when we talk to people, we model their usage and align our vocabularies. (Starbucks works hard to get us to model their language.) Interestingly, people communicating with computers align their language, too. This has been going on as long as there have been computers: when writing Fortran or Basic programmes back in the 1980s, the vocabulary I could use was very restrained and had very specific meaning. I had to use those words and the programmes’ syntax because otherwise the programmes wouldn’t work, or would give different results from those expected.

When we speak, whether to another person or using voice interaction with a computer, though, the modelling would be internal – subconscious – rather than deliberate.

I was surprised to learn that Siri has a single, masculine voice in the UK (apparently with an American accent). In the USA, Siri seems to have a feminine voice (which can be changed). Presumably its implementation in other languages takes on different voices or accents. Perhaps in the future we will be able to programme computerised voices, as some people do with satnav which I am sure would go some distance to overcoming the uncanny valley – though it may raise other issues (who owns the sound of their voice? What if one decides to use an ex’s voice? …And so on).

Still, it would appear that Siri has a sense of humour…

Which I think is where I came in…

Edit: I have been reliably informed that in the UK, Siri has a British accent. Chris says: “UK Siri [is] decidedly British; he sounds like a sarcastic airline pilot.”

Thoughts on Crowd-Funding

I have been thinking about crowd-funding recently, prompted by several things. First, LondonJazz had a post about Gwyneth Herbert crowd-funding her latest recording; then various projects were brought to my attention; and lastly Creative Edinburgh had a session about crowd-funding.

I have been uneasy about crowd-funding, and I haven’t really been able to understand why; it was my unease that took me to the Creative Edinburgh event: I wanted to get to grips with what concerned me about it. I love crowd-sourcing and collaborative-creation, and people using new models to get stuff done: what was so discomforting with collaborative funding? Why did I feel unwilling to help finance some of these projects when I think several of them are very worthwhile and I would (and have!) support them in other ways?

I think the post about Herbert’s work covers a lot of the area well – not least because the artist herself got involved in the debate, explaining her motives. (I should point out that I am not a fan of Ms Herbert’s work and he’s I’d not a project I would have funded – though I have a great deal of respect for her as a result of the post and how she has engaged with the discussion – pros and cons.)

Crowd-funding enables artists of all sorts to get projects done that might otherwise not happen; it allows supporters to get involved and contribute to the creative process; and both artist and supporter get something in exchange.

I think my reticence stems from two sources. The first is consumerist: I want to know what I am buying. Funding an early stage project means one doesn’t know what you’re going to get; if the target isn’t reached, the project wrong happen and you won’t get anything (though your pledge won’t be taken). Part of this is also that rewards don’t particularly interest me: if I’m contributing to a musician’s project, say, it will be because I want the music, not a signed photo (or other reward). I would pay for CDs or downloads, I would pay for gigs – but these are specific “products”; funding an early stage project is an unknown.

The second is perhaps a British reticence to discuss and get involved in money. This is mentioned in Ms Herbert’s comments on that blog post, and it was also an issue someone suggested to when we were chatting at Creative Edinburgh. It is a very personal thing; the artists know what one is providing, and how generous or stingy one has been. It just – well, doesn’t feel “right”.

The crowd-funding of creative projects is, I think, more like charitable giving than a consumer transaction. You are doing something to support a cause – albeit one that gives you something back. It is an altruistic act. One isn’t purchasing an object; and neither are you providing funding for financial return. The thing is that it isn’t a faceless charity that gets the money: it is real, flesh-and-blood (and of course connected) people. Friends. Both the speakers at Creative Edinburgh, talking from a fund-raiser’s point of view, said that one had to be prepared to be disappointed; the flipside – the donor’s view – is the feeling of peer-pressure that might keep them away.

As Herbert points out, artists have relied on patrons since time immemorial. Roman citizens funded artists in ancient Rome (“patron” is a Latin term); wealthy bankers financed the Renaissance in Florence; publication of literature was funded in Victorian Britain through subscription. Whilst writing this post, I recall several years ago making a charitable donation to support a jazz big band I admired. The one crowd funding activity I can remember participating in up to now has been to support Lloyd’s artistic endeavour because, at a very basic level, I was concerned he wouldn’t be able to eat if I (and others) didn’t! But being a patron is quite close to “patronising” – it doesn’t rest easily.

Having thought this through, then, I did decide to support a couple of projects last week. When it came down to it, it was LedBib posting worriedly on Facebook that they were close to raising what they were after but not there yet – and running out of time. When they were looking for £10,000, what I might contribute seemed a drop in the ocean; when they were looking for the final £300, a £25 contribution seemed a lot more. (As it happened, the Kickstarter website didn’t like my browser set up – specifically, I think, the various add-ons I use; though I have promised them the money, anyhow, and they passed their total without my £25.)

Having done that, I thought I should support Debbie’s sculpture project too, because I love the idea, so I’ve pledged to support that, too. (It didn’t make the total they were after, but they are going to have another go, which I will be supporting.)

[After I’d written this post, I watched Amanda Palmer’s now famous TEDtalk. Palmer – and again, I’m not a fan – discusses a lot of the things I’ve covered here, much more eloquently than I have – and from the artist’s perspective. It is a very powerful and moving video.]

Everything in the Garden…

When I was thinking about how the online world might change in the future, I suggested there may be some pressure for the resurrection of “walled gardens” – specialist areas of the internet where interactions happen behind password-protected access.

DSCN1501

When I first started using the internet, back in 1995, this was common. I signed up with Compuserve (which I am amazed to see still exists!), and there were specific areas of interest curated by the the organisation; to access the internet proper, you had to click an icon to leave the walled garden. There were other, similar services, too – AOL, for instance.

Accessible browsers like Internet Explorer and Netscape – and, later, Firefox, Chrome et al – freed up the internet and enabled non-technically savvy users (like me) to get around. The walled gardens more or less died: users didn’t like being walled in, and had no reason to be so.

My reasoning for thinking walled gardens might make a return was a commercial one: suppliers of content – like Facebook, Twitter, Apple or Google – want to keep you on their site as long as possible, to sell your eyeballs to advertisers and others willing to pay them. That’s how they make their money. Part of the bargain is that we get to look at the content they provide (albeit, if they’re Facebook or Twitter, that it is created by other users). In a more competitive environment, they will set up walls to keep you there.

(A corollary was that there would also be a move to more openness, driven an increasing awareness and technical know-how.)

A couple of weeks ago I saw a demonstration of what this might be like, and I’ll admit I didn’t really get it. Kiltr is

the largest social media platform focused on connecting Scottish interests globally to create economic, cultural and social value for its members

and, believing that the only way to understand new networks is to play around with them, I signed up to join last September.

I made some connections, mostly with people I follow on other networks, looked at some brands (most of which I follow on other networks…), and I don’t think I have been back in the last three months (until just now!). The reason for my resistance is that the “exclusive” nature of Kiltr doesn’t really make sense to me: if I want to share stuff, I want to share it with my friends and contacts pretty much anywhere – many of whom may be on Kiltr, but most are not.

A couple of guys from Kiltr were demonstrating their new platform at the University business school’s Entrepreneurship Club; they are rolling it out in June, I think. It was very, very snazzy – a whole world away from the current experience. But I am not sure that an excellent new interface will make a difference to me. I think that Flipboard is an excellent app – it looks great, works very well, does what I might want. But I hardly ever use it: however good it looks, it didn’t actually add anything to my use of social media.

(They will be developing the interface for other enterprises as part of their business model.)

Similarly, I am not sure what more I will get from Kiltr that I can’t get from my existing social networks. To connect with people  and content I want, I would need to go to Kiltr in addition to the other networks. I assume that I can connect to the same people and brands elsewhere that I can on Kiltr – all it gives me, aside from a superb experience after the relaunch, is the walled garden of Scottishness.

I can see what brands and advertisers – they get access to consumers or businesses with less noise; there may be fewer eyeballs, but there will be more attention.

But for individuals, I’m not sure.

It may just be me. There are other networks I’m a member of which I rarely if ever visit. The ConnectingHR network (developed using Ning, I think) is full of interesting, like-minded people – most of whom I connect with in other ways, mostly Twitter. It is so long since I logged into the site that I have no idea what my password is; but I engaged with other members on Twitter just this morning.

I am not sure what it would take for me to use these walled gardens more effectively – what would make the loss of “shareability” with those not on a particular network worth paying.

I will certainly give Kiltr’s new site a go when it is launched in June – but I am doubtful it will be enough.

“The Dark Arts of Innovation” – Or Not?

After excellent sessions on play and improvisation, I suppose I was only setting myself up for disappointment with the third of the series of talks at the ScienceFestival that I accidentally curated for myself: “the Dark Arts of Innovation. The talk’s title hints at secret recipes or innovation-magick, but whilst interesting and engaging, on that count it didn’t deliver. There were no secret tricks or short cuts, no quick fixes – though a fair bit of common sense.

I think this in part reflects the nature of the institutions represented by the three speakers: a university, a research institute and a private sector (and privately owned) company.

Light Bulb
Image from Olga Reznik on flickr.
Used under Creative Commons licence.

As Alan Miller, deputy principal (and responsibile for knowledge transfer) at Heriot Watt, pointed out, universities are steeped in tradition and conservative in nature; not necessarily the most innovative of institutions. Still, the Watt in Heriot Watt refers to James Watt, who whilst he didn’t invent the steam engine (that was Thomas Savery, apparently – I thought it was Newcomen, which proves that one really can learn stuff from the internet!), came up with an innovative design made greatly improved its efficiency and reduced its size, and enabled others to deploy it in many new ways – the power behind the industrial revolution.

Of course, once more the question of semantics came up. What exactly is innovation? Miller reckoned it was seeing the practical benefits of research – taking original research and creating products from it: exploiting experimental research and commercialising novelty. (As far as I recall, during my MBA the working definition of innovation we used was along the lines of seeing the potential products of new research, methods or processes, and then actually getting the product to market. Others define innovation as the generation of wealth from ideas.)

Either way, researchers are not necessarily the best innovators, and nor are universities the best at exploiting and commercialising their research. It has long been said that Britain is great at research but poor at exploiting it. Miller reckoned that Scottish universities are actually on a par with the US counterparts (a view which is consistent with this research into UK manufacturing from Southampton University). The UK parliament investigated the translation of research into commercial products last year, and produced a second report just last month. Others reckon the UK has no coherent policy on innovation. Part of the problem, I think, is whether a government can actually promote innovation specifically – they can make the economy as attractive for entrepreneurs and innovators (fat lot of success they’ve had there – though I guess they might argue the recent cut of the top rate of income tax is an effort to improve the incentives for entrepreneurs) – but I can’t help feeling that there is little governments can do to stimulate the process of innovation itself.

Heriot Watt tries to do this in various ways, though mostly by spinning off possible commercial outcomes from research into independent companies. The university doesn’t expect to to profit (though it hopes it will in the long term), but removing the removing the ties of bureaucracy and adding the profit motive seem to be beneficial.

The missing gap for me seemed to be how to identify those who were good at innvoation – clearly, not necessarily the same as those undertaking the initial research. My guess would be that most academics are motivated to a great extent by profit, but if one removes the results of their research and passes to someone else – even another (spin off) body – to commercialise, how does one recognise and reward to original researchers? Do they also profit from it?

Working out which bits of research actually have the potential also seems problematic: are there university committees assessing which bits of research might yield commercial results? Miller pointed out that the fruits of research may come a long time after the research itself – the development of transistors after WW2 relied on esoteric research into quantum mechanics decades earlier, for instance.

Fundamentally, though, Miller saw innovation as being all about people: they need to be stimulated to innovate. Unfortunately, how to actually do that doesn’t seem clear.

Lee Innes from the Moredun Institute gave some excellent examples of the way they have innovated. Firstly, they are very close to their ultimate costumers – farmers: indeed, they were established by the agricultural industry and are managed, in part, by farmers; they are aware of the issues facing farmers, and work with them on technological solutions. The profits of their innovation are channelled back into further research projects.

The institute also sifts ideas using evaluation criteria before product development and implementation – a long, and, she reckoned, potentially cruel process: you need to be willing to dump good, workable ideas if they might not come to fruition or would drain resources. “Killing the babies”, she called it.

The critical steps – necessary, even – seemed to be working in collaborative, cross-disciplinary teams, and for those teams to be small and flexible. She gave an example of a brainstorming session between the institute’s researchers and engineers from (I think) Heriot Watt where the engineers had picked up on a problem the researchers had thought of as insoluble – and a rapid diagnostic for toxoplasma is now in development. Being open to new ideas from unlikely sources seems to be beneficial – and I like the idea of innovation rising from random conversations! Spinning out potential products allows the innovators to work in flexible, dynamic, high performance teams to get the product to market – like any start up, perhaps. They are also open to unintended consequences – and exploit the novel application of them.

Promoting that sense of interdisciplinary collaboration in a high performing environment seems crucial to W L Gore. I have heard people from Gore speak before, and it has always seemed both an inspirational organisation – and completely down to earth. Gore’s Gerry Mulligan added to the passion for ideas I have seen from the firm before. It does sound like a truly innovative organisation, with a novel culture that has innovation at its core. (The first thing you see on their website is “A Commitment to Innovation Shapes Everything We Do” – quite a statement.) It eschews hierarchy and works with a minimum of bureacracy – no time sheets, for instance. Its teams are self-organising and wholly empowered; the only leaders are those who get followers (someone once said that Gore doesn’t do leadership training – they do followership training instead – though Mulligan did describe the leadership training those in senior positions get – clearly there is some recognition of hierarchy). Peers are involved in the annual review process – and are responsible for setting remuneration, too. Everyone gets 10% of time to work – or “dabble” – on their own projects.

This could also make it a harsh place to work, too – it may not be the best environment for introverts, perhaps. (I may be completely wrong, of course: if you are judged on your contribution to results by your peers, regardless of how loud you shout and how sociable you are, it could be that introverts may fly!)

It was, Mulligan said, all about the culture – and the people: without bureaucracy, hierarchy and “command and control”, innovation was able to flourish within small, flexible – and cross-disciplinary – teams based around relationships. Informal networks are key to sharing knowledge and enabling the teams to coalesce. All those conversations again…

There was long discussion about the nature of intellectual property, and who benefits from it. Gore uses patents a lot, and – in some jurisdictions – are bound to share the profits of IP with its developers (not in the UK). Mulligan described some bad experiences the firm had working with others and sharing IP, which had to be resolved in court, and felt it best to keep working relationships in house.

The speakers also felt that Scotland and the UK more generally had become risk averse: failure is a dirty word. Instead, they thought we ought to celebrate failure. At Gore, when a project closes because it fails, they have a party to celebrate. Of course, we can learn from failure – but to really learn, we need to share the knowledge of the failure. Researchers don’t publish details of experiments that fail, only those that succeed.

Condensing down what was said into that all elusive recipe for innovation, then…

  • small…
  • open…
  • collaborative…
  • flexible…
  • cross-disciplinary…
  • high performing…
  • empowered…
  • self managed teams
  • minimal bureaucracy
  • unafraid to fail
    And know when to stop!

But you still need to instill all that into your culture – and work with people who are creative innovators. Whoever they are.

Post Script. Whilst I have been writing this, my mind has kept returning to the Centre for Creative Collaboration, which I used to visit frequently when I was in London. C4CC acted (and, I presume, still acts!) a space promoting many of the themes of innovation that the speakers at this talk covered – particularly the open discussion and conversation. C4CC was set up in partnership with several of London’s higher education institutions, but is largely independent of them. Perhaps could be a model – only one many possible, mind – for incubation of innovation.

This Happened Edinburgh and Creative Edinburgh

Four years ago, I spent an evening at the first This Happened Edinburgh – an interesting, collaborative event where technical and creative people discussed some of their innovative projects. (I thought I had blogged about it at the time, but clearly I failed to do so!)

After a four year gap (whilst I was down in London – where there is also a regular “This Happened” but where I found it impossible to get a ticket, such was demand!), I went to This Happened Edinburgh #9 last week.

This Happened Edinburgh #1 was the first event like that I had been to: four creators discussing their projects; this time, I knew what to expect. First time around, it was in a crowded upstairs room of a pub; now it was in the much more salubrious surroundings of Edinburgh University’s Inspace gallery, a white space which may well have been designed for events such as this. Much techier, much smoother, much cooler – but much less “funky”, too, and more deliberate and knowing.

The four projects were as interesting as those four years ago – I was particularly taken with Shenando Stals examination of the emotional geography of walkers’ Edinburgh – how our emotional sense of a city is created and alters our everyday experience of place – and Gianluca Zaffiro’s description of a project involving the users of social networks managing their own data (rather than the firms running the social networks).

The mantle for the funkier side of things has been taken up by Creative Edinburgh who, amongst the other things they do, have been organising a series of irregular events called “Glug” (part of a broader programme of Glug around the UK – I do like the subtitle “Notworking”: for all the self-unemployed out there…) where entrepreneurs and artists give short talks about their projects. Loosely curated around a theme – the first one I went to was on “collectives” (from I learned that collectives come in all shapes, sizes and ideologies – and it is the people not the idea that make it work! And I meant, and failed, to write about that at the time, too); the last one, in December, was on “materials matter“, though I’m not sure the case was proven: it was the creativity and the ideas that came through for me, the materials just being the medium.

Creative Edinburgh’s Glug evenings are more entrepreneurial and less academic than This Happened; maybe a bit more social, too. Not necessarily better – just a different focus. Both present a series of fascinating, engaging talks, and I look forward to more.