Tag Archives: UK

Is Amazon neglecting the UK and Europe?

Just an idle thought. Consider:

  • the delayed MP3 store launch in the UK
  • the continued lack of an iPhone app for the Amazon store
  • no Kindle launch outside of the US, and they’re on the second version already.

I’m probably just impatient…

Postcodes should be free?

Free The Postcode! 2.jpg

Something I picked up from a tweet recently (can’t remember who from) was the effort to create a free database of UK postcode data via a site called Free The Postcode!. For those who don’t know, UK postcodes are essentially the same as zip codes in the US – Wikipedia tells me that we’ve had them in this country for 50 years now, since 1959.

note: in what is now the dim and distant past, I used to work for the Post Office’s IT division. I have no current association with the UK Post Office and what follows are entirely my own random thoughts on the subject.

The essential thrust of Free The Postcode is this: the Post Office currently charges people for access to their database beyond a certain number of queries per day. [I think they used to send updated copies of PAF (the Postal Address File) on CD to companies every month or so – presumably there’s now some online mechanism for distribution but I have no idea]. Much as Wikipedia has “freed” the world from having to buy hardback copies of Britannica, and OpenStreetmap is crowdsourcing a global map which is not bound by Ordnance Survey fees or Google control, wouldn’t it be great if we could do the same thing for postcode and address information in the UK?

Well… I guess. There are a few problems that I can see with the approach. The first is that only the Post Office can allocate, update and change postcodes in an area. In fact, every now and then they have done this over wide areas (Southampton’s SO codes were all changed or reorganised in the last ten or fifteen years I believe). The second is that in order to submit postcode information you need to know your GPS location (not so difficult these days with GPS being built into an increasing number of mobile devices) and the postcode you are currently in. Now, unless you are at home or at the office, this is potentially a bit more tricky – so actually building this free database could take a very long time. Also, in order to draw accurate boundaries, you will need a lot more than a single reading from each postcode area.

In the interests of experimentation, and my doubts notwithstanding, I thought I’d give this a try. There’s a free iPhone application called iFreeThePostcode which works out where you are and then allows you to submit your location and the postcode online (by the way, there are also Android applications, or a web form).

iFreeThePostcode 2.png

A couple of interesting points here. Firstly, I found it fascinating to see how long it took my phone to get a location lock with better than 50m accuracy – it started off at over 1000m and gradually narrowed itself down (jumping up over 300m on a reasonably regular basis). The other thing is that I had to fill in my email address in order to go through a validation process – they send you an email with a “confirm that you submitted this” link, presumably to avoid spammers. That’s fine, but as many of the comments in the iTunes store reviews say – I’m handing over personal data here, and there’s no statement as to how that might be used. To be fair, the current content of the database is available as public domain, but that doesn’t mean that the people gathering the data don’t have other purposes.

Besides that, there are some interesting legal discussions on the associated wiki page, and no overall stated privacy policy for the project.

If you’re interested, by all means give the FreeThePostcode project a look. I can’t quite say whether or not I’m in favour of the idea – frankly, I think this is a tricky problem to solve through crowdsourcing.

Update: the source code of the iFreeThePostcode app is available.

Some thoughts on openness and trust in government

One of the things I’ve been taking an interest in lately is the slow progression of Internet technologies into UK politics – or should that be the progress of UK politicians onto the web?

We have a small number of Members of Parliament on Twitter (you can find them at Tweetminster), and a few have their own blogs too. Sadly some of the initial government moves to use social media were a bit of a disaster (remember David Miliband’s efforts in this area?). Things have improved as the individuals themselves are more savvy (increasingly true as new generations of MPs come into politics) – Tom Watson is a good example and I was delighted to be able to contribute to the open discussion he invited on the proposed Internet site classification idea.

Recently I was particularly pleased to hear Jo Swinson defend her use of Twitter on Radio 4’s Any Questions. I was also impressed with the tech-savvy she showed in a defence of Wikipedia, and her willingness to respond to people who are not even her direct constituents during a subsequent discussion on Twitter. I don’t want MPs on Twitter so that they can lecture me or send out press releases on their politics; and actually, I don’t see it as a gigantic waste of their time. It’s an excellent way to build relationships, and it can also make them seem more human too. Blogging and twittering encourages the use of more conversational language, and that is important particularly in the political sphere.

In an age of increasing distrust and apathy in democracies around the world, I’d like to see more of this. I’d like to see it extend to both the local level, and the international level, too. Local councils in the UK should be encouraged to make more use of social media. Larger bodies like the EU should be making better efforts in this space too – it’s all very well for them to stream proceedings online, but without a level of human interpretation of the jargon and dense documentation that comes out of the European Parliament, it’s very difficult for ordinary citizens to make sense of what goes on.

Pop quiz: does covering up a significant budget scandal in an intergovernmental body give opponents of that body less, or more, to complain about? Thanks to Google Translate I’ve been able to read a Swedish MEP’s blog entry on the subject

One of [my colleagues] argued for example that I should propose to discharge only to “avoid giving boost to European opposition before the European elections”. A hair-raising way of arguing, I think! This is exactly the opposite. If we do not take problems seriously and sweep justified criticism under the carpet, then we give arguments to the EU opponents!

I have to say that I agree – and more open attitudes like this would do a lot to improve public trust in the institutions that work for us.

The Flip Mino in the UK

Regular readers will know that one of the things that I’ve been getting more into this year is video editing (see the page that I’ve just added as a teaser for things to come in 2009). This has been driven by the increasing ease-of-use of online services, the capabilities of the machines and software I have, and the gadgets I’ve been playing around with. In January I looked at a cheap USB video camera, and since then I’ve had even nicer toys to look at 🙂

Interview

Back in October I was invited to talk to the EMEA President of Flip Video, Ray Sangster, at the press launch of the Flip Mino in London. I imagined at the time that my earlier blog posts about this category of devices was at least partly responsible for the invitation.

Before the visit I’d canvassed some questions from my friends on Twitter, and I had some ideas and thoughts of my own that I wanted to discuss. For instance, why bother with a USB camcorder like a Flip when mobile phones are increasingly able to record video and connect to the Internet? Why are the Flip cameras later coming to Europe (typically several months behind the US launch?). Would the Flip cameras get external mics, or other accessories to make them more useful to journalists?

Ray kicked off the conversation by showing me some sample video made by college students in the US… and immediately also pointed out that the target audience for the camera is primarily the 14-25 age group who use the web more than TV, and also particularly with the Mino (which is slimmer and sleeker than the previous Flip Ultra) more slanted towards women, who capture “memories” more than “video for editing”.

The answer to my core question around the value of the device compared to, say, a mobile phone was a great one – Ray offered me his phone and suggested that I try to find the controls for recording video. It’s true that right now, it is relatively difficult to do that (and impossible on the iPhone, which still doesn’t support video, or have a decent resolution)… The very simplicity of the Flip is the selling point. It is reflected in the design of the hardware (big lens, big record button, flip-out USB connection, that’s about it!) and the use of the software, which I’ll talk about in a moment.

The time-delay on release was put down to the time needed to convert to European standards and languages, which is fair… although I remember when the original Flip came out, I got very frustrated waiting for the UK release. It would be great if they could reduce that window for future models.

The accessories include tripod, underwater casing (for the Ultra… I’ve not seen that for a Mino yet but I’ve not looked hard)… but it doesn’t seem likely to me that items such an external microphone are coming along, given the focus on simplicity and the consumer market.

I was interested to learn that the Mino is being used, in the words of the PR company, “from the catwalks to Kandahar” – they are being used to record fashion shows from people like Stella McCartney, and covering war stories in Afghanistan for upload back to the UK over a telephone modem.

A very enjoyable afternoon!

Hands-on

The Flip Mino itself is delivered in a smart box reminiscent of Apple packaging (particularly that of the iPhone). You get the camera, a soft carrying pouch, and that is it – all you need to get going.

You get a simple camera with no batteries to fiddle around with. It’s a fixed 2Gb capacity (60 minutes recording time), unlike some other devices on the market which can support additional storage like SD cards. You record your clips, plug in to a computer, and the software can upload directly to YouTube and MySpace… I was somewhat surprised that it doesn’t support other services like Viddler and Facebook too, given their growing popularity.

If you’re curious to see what I thought of the hardware and the Mac software, take a look at the short clip below.

A number of small things bother me about the Mac support for the Mino, some of which I mention in the video. Firstly, I notice that the software is PowerPC and therefore runs in Rosetta on an Intel Mac – why not ship a Universal binary? It doesn’t support logging in to YouTube with a Google ID (iMovie 08 does). The Save to Album option puts the videos into [homedir]/Documents/My Flip Video Library – which seems strange – why not use the Movies folder, or just use drag-and-drop on a Mac to copy the movies straight off the USB drive (which is actually what I ended up doing, and editing with iMovie). Generally, I’m left thinking that they could have done a better job of the Mac support. It works with OS X though, and that’s a step forward from previous models.

I also took the camera out with me on a weekend break with friends in November. It was a good opportunity to see how it performed outdoors, and also to see what others in the target age group thought about it. Here’s a chance to see what kind of audio and sound quality you get.

As for opinions: generally, friends were commenting that the screen was too small, and shared my impression that phones are moving into the same space, so many were doubtful that they would buy one… but they also don’t make many videos at the moment anyway. In all honesty, their reactions were not strongly positive.

By the way, you can also see those videos on my YouTube channel, along with some other examples of footage shot with the Mino.

So where is the “but”?

So far I’m probably sounding reasonably positive, and the fact is that I do like the Mino, despite the faults I’ve observed. It’s small, convenient, and “good enough” in most respects. My issues with it are that I think it’s somewhat expensive given the competition from alternatives like the bulkier and AA-battery-driven, but 720p-capable Kodak Zi6 HD; and that right around the corner are some other rather nice-looking HD devices. DSLRs are also increasingly getting HD video recording capabilities, so the market space for these devices is potentially narrowing. That said, there will always be something better on the horizon!

My overall feeling is that if you want a simple, straightforward video camera that is easy to use, portable and “good enough” then absolutely, check out the Flip Mino. And if you don’t want my opinion, then Scoble reckons the Flip was the best gadget he “stole” in 2008… although commenters on his post also note that the Kodak is a contender. You can also take a look at Julia Roy’s video review.

Available from Amazon in black or white (which, weirdly, is slightly cheaper!)

Youngsters, social media, and online privacy

While I was driving to work this morning I listened to a piece on Radio 4 about an Ofcom study published today (also reported on the BBC News website). The report and interview on the Today programme was essentially suggesting that children in the UK are routinely sharing too much personal information on social networking sites. One mother interviewed said that she didn’t really understand the privacy settings on the social networks her son used, that she trusted him, and then admitted that she had “abdicated responsibility” for his use of the sites.

It was another of those segments that made me gnash my teeth and make comments at the radio. While I very strongly believe that children (and their parents) do need to be well-informed about the ways to make effective use of social networks and how to protect themselves online, I wanted to share an interesting experience that may indicate that the problem may not be as bad as the media makes out.

During the Blue Fusion event we ran at IBM Hursley recently, I spent a day running an activity that was all about identity theft and online privacy. The idea of the game was that the students were given a single piece of information – someone’s name – and then had to see how much they could find out about them through social engineering: web searches, finding paper information, or passing themselves off as various official organisations in roleplays. It was entirely contrived, of course… the designers of the activity had deliberately setup a social network profile for the person with “just enough” data to put the youngsters on the right track, and then laid a bunch of other clues based on the individual being quite hapless (not shredding documents, giving out personal data entirely too freely, etc). It was a lot of fun to run, and also brilliantly put together.

At the end of the activity I made a point of bringing the teams together and talking to them about how careless use of social networks could theoretically provide openings to identity theft. We had a short Q&A session that revolved around what networks they used (interestingly, most of them were on Bebo or MySpace, and not Facebook), and what kinds of information they shared. Home addresses, telephone numbers and dates of birth were not generally on the list, which was a bit of a relief! The overriding impression I got from the exercise was that these students had a high degree of common sense… not that I’m saying that the sample group should be taken as indicative of every UK student, but their degree of online literacy was highly impressive.

On top of today’s Ofcom study, whilst I was at Male’ airport on the way back from vacation I caught a snippet on Sky News covering last week’s publication of the Byron Review. There’s a lovely statement in the Executive Summary of the review:

Children and young people need to be empowered to keep themselves safe – this isn’t just about a top-down approach. Children will be children – pushing boundaries and taking risks. At a public swimming pool we have gates, put up signs, have lifeguards and shallow ends, but we also teach children how to swim.

Again, from what I’ve read I think I broadly agree with some of the findings, but the point at which the teeth-gnashing comes in is where the report (and the media) start to talk about regulation, which just seems to me to indicate a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the Internet. Educate, don’t always seek to regulate.

The question is: just who needs educating here? The adults, the children, or the media? I think it’s obvious that today’s youngsters are streets ahead of most of their parents in terms of online literacy. I hope their parents can be persuaded to keep up, and not to attempt to crack down. And I hope the need for a weekly scare story about social networks can actually subside at some point this year – seriously, it’s getting old.

Apparently the Home Office is due to publish a set of recommendations later this week. I await their thoughts with a mixture of interest and dread.