Thursday, 24 November 2011

Gas and tea tariffs

Simple lessons for the energy industry and us researchers - simply put, if customers don't get it, you've got a problem; and you'll be eating humble pie.

At a time when we looking ahead to the smart meters and smart grids, time of day metering and demand side management, perhaps British Gas' acknowledgement (see BBC article) that they "had not made it easy for customers" in their pricing is a salutory lesson - we had better put the people at the centre of the problem and work back to the engineering.

What we need is more pricing plan information presented like this gem from

Cup of tea infographic

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Why Johnny Can’t Opt Out...

Why Johnny Can’t Opt Out: A Usability Evaluation of  Tools to Limit Online Behavioral Advertising.

A great tech report from CMU CyLabs on issues in self-regulation and opt-out mechanisms in online advertising. Conclusion - "fundamentally flawed".

No browser should be without it!
Yup - even as a technologist with Ghostery, AdBlocker Plus, rather obsessive browser settings and as of a few minutes ago having opted out of the 52 companies that target ads at Chrome according the Digital Advertising Alliance (curiously hard to find online!) - I still find it all disconcerting.

I have for years been registered with the Telephone and Mail Preference Services in the UK - this is not self regulation, this is legislation, and it works pretty well and cuts out most of the junk - the remaining junk in the McAuley household is blow-ins through magazine subscriptions - New Scientist can I sign out of this please? However,  I still get telephone direct marketing from folks outside the UK; interestingly when I ask which UK company they are working on behalf of, the phone goes dead. Unfortunately I can't report them because the caller-id is always blocked, but companies (and you know who you are) are clearly trying to bypass the legislation. So would you now trust them to self-regulate online?

Thanks to Gilad for pointing me at the original article.

P.S. At 14:38 today, just as I finalised this, I had an international telesales call in broken english asking for Mr Needham or Mrs Needham (previous residents at this address from 14 years ago!). Good friends, long may they be remembered, the operator received some ripe anglo-saxon they may have difficulty translating.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

The data is out there; the episode of the nibbled chainsaw

So; this is the sorry sight that greeted me as I deployed the tools for some light hedge trimming this morning. For those unversed in garden machinery lore and wizardry, what you see here is the result of a rodent nibbling on the carburettor primer pump of a chainsaw. Since integrity of this small plastic component is vital for it's correct operation - Mr Rat has quite effectively, and probably most efficiently, sabotaged my weekend's "hedge trimming"; however, he's not that smart as we can narrow down the suspects - this guy is clearly into solvent abuse.

How to find a replacement part? Of course "to the Internet" and surely the trusty search engines will pop up a suitable supplier. So I did learn there is a forum for "International Chainsaw Collectors", whether you are expected to have chainsaws from two or more countries to join in is unclear, but there I did find the user manual (scanned by some kind soul) although sadly not a parts list. Search did find several plausible components that "looked similar" but at no point could I verify that the offered parts would do the job. The manufacturers website grudgingly started to appear in the lower ranking of the searches and with sinking heart I thought I might as well try the manufacturers website...

The reason for my (soon to be justified) gloom was that this has been a recurring pattern; it's been a bad year for domestic appliances in the McAuley household (probably due to climate change) but from memory so far: boiler, cooker, fridge, washing machine, lawnmower, laptop, vivarium thermostat, camera,  and now chainsaw - each time I have gone to find information about a product at the manufacturer's website I have found nothing - lots of their new products, often animated with the latest and greatest web technology, but if it is not on sale anymore, it's pretty much invisible.

I exited the digital and went old-school - trip to the local garden centre and associated lawnmower maintenance facility. A brief check in their stores turned up about 5 close candidates but not an exact match, so, much to my amazement, with oil under fingers and pencil behind ear, lawnmower-repair-man jumps on his rather grimy PC and pulls up a vector graphic exploded view schematic of carburettor assembly for the chainsaw in question, zooms in, clicks on the part, clicks on "add to shopping basket" and reports to me that I can collect Tuesday. Beautiful manufacturer supplied data integrated into a purchasing system.

I returned home and having clocked the name of the supplier went to their website; why had they not shown up on the search engines? Was it the deep web? No - in large friendly letters it says "trade only" and "login required". So it's a supply chain conspiracy;  a classic closed v. open argument to protect existing business relationships.

So the hedge is still 9ft tall but at least I've got another supply chain anecdote.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Don't let the energy company kill my pet

There's an intersting article on the privacy issues present in much of the current thinking on smart grids over on Miller-McCune's blog.

There is indeed a fundamental problem with the model that energy companies are going to be poking around in our homes switching things on and off - the problem I refer to as "don't let the energy companies kill my pet".

Here's Frankie; he's a bearded dragon and likes a daytime temperature of about 33C; he also likes to bask - this is done by placing a 150W light bulb in his vivarium housed in child no. 1's bedroom. Last thing I need is the energy company switching off the lights in my house because it's daytime and the fools have left their bedroom lights on (*). They simply cannot know that Frankie will die and I, and more importantly my kids, will be somewhat annoyed. We need to move beyond this omniscient energy company model to understand what information the energy company needs to supply to each property where local decisions can be made by my personal energy agent - the pure economists would say this could be simply price. Maybe; although perhaps with something a bit richer than simply current price, for example a pricing plan for the next 24 hours, we might get there.

In electrical theory, we can figure out the the voltages and currents flowing in a network of resistors by using Kirchoff's laws, or, by applying Maxwell's equations. The former is a global solution (and simple - GCSE physics) whereas the other can be calculated locally (and is gnarly for most - undergraduate physics...); however, they result in the same solution; indeed Kirchoff's law can be derived from Maxwell's equations.

So rather than trying to solve the "simple" global problem let's set to figuring out how to get the same solution with local (and hence private) optimisations (+)... we'd better expect it's not going to be easy, we can only hope it is as beautiful and powerful as Maxwell's work, but it is certainly seems like a fit topic for research.

Think global act local!

---- 8< ----

(*) Other examples include:

  • don't discharge my electric car when my wife is 8 months pregnant and I may urgently need to get her to the hospital
  • it a dialysis machine not a TV you buffoons
  • etc
(+) This insight was used in telecommunications call routing (Dynamic Alternative Routing) - perhaps the review article in +plus magazine is an easier read! In any case I am indebted to Frank for sharing this insight many years ago.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

The unsung social nets

Scotland Yard warned on Monday afternoon that those "inciting violence" on the 140-character social network would not go unpunished. Deputy assistant commissioner Stephen Kavanagh confirmed that officers were looking at the website as part of investigations into widespread looting and rioting.However, the most powerful and up-to-the-minute rallying appears to have taken place on a more covert social network: BlackBerry Messenger (BBM).Using BlackBerry handsets – the smartphone of choice for the majority (37%) of British teens, according to last week's Ofcom study – BBM allows users to send one-to-many messages to their network of contacts, who are connected by "BBM PINs". For many teens armed with a BlackBerry, BBM has replaced text messaging because it is free, instant and more part of a much larger community than regular SMS.

Seems the tech has raced ahead of the authorities yet again - although not as if equipment manufacturers and operators don't know that there is such a thing as lawful intercept...

Monday, 1 August 2011

Cloud security fears exaggerated, says federal CIO

An interesting read over at Computer World:
 "A lot of people are sort of driving this notion of fear around security," Kundra said. "And the reason I think that's been amplified, frankly, is because it preserves the status quo."
Talking to the folks from The Portal recently and starting to appreciate the levels of automation and small  number of folks who are actually needed to manage the automation in these data centres, the issues of "who has the time?" and "wouldn't even know where to look" provided a lively topic of discussion; however, still think I'd like a smattering of "encryption at rest". Belt and braces don't you know.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

A view from ARTICLE 29 Data Protection Working Party on location privacy

Hardly lightweight reading, but the recent report by:
start with an introduction to location based services :
Geographical information plays an important role in our society. Almost all human activities and decisions have a geographical component. In general, the value of information increases when it is connected to a location. All kinds of information can be connected to a geographic location, such as financial data, health data and other consumer behavioural data. With the rapid technological development and wide uptake of smart mobile devices, a whole new category of location based services is developing. 
and ends with some interesting recommendations:
  • Because location data from smart mobile devices reveal intimate details about the private life of their owner, the main applicable legitimate ground is prior informed consent.
  • Consent cannot be obtained through general terms and conditions.
  • Consent must be specific, for the different purposes that data are being processed for, including for example profiling and or behavioural targeting purposes from the controller. If the purposes of the processing change in a material way, the controller must seek renewed specific consent.
  • By default, location services must be switched off. A possible opt-out mechanism does not constitute an adequate mechanism to obtain informed user consent.
Still not convinced that the average man on the Clapham Omnibus will ever achieve "informed consent" with the 80+ pages of Ts & Cs we get confronted with today...

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Is the Future of Patient-Managed Health Records Now a Thing of the Past?

RIP Google Health and Powermeter (see here); and MSFT Hohm at the same time. In the immortal words of Half Man Half Biscuit "A million housewives every day pick up a tin of beans and say, 'what an amazing example of synchronisation'".

And so as they ask over at BioPoliticalTimes are we done with patient managed records? 

I think the thing here is not to loose track of the fact that patient access to records rather than holding them is a key service we want to see...

Saturday, 25 June 2011

RIP Google PowerMeter

Begin forwarded message:

From: Google PowerMeter <>
Date: 24 June 2011 22:20:24 GMT+01:00
Subject: Update on Google PowerMeter

Dear PowerMeter User,
We first launched Google PowerMeter as a project to raise awareness about the importance of giving people access to their energy information. Since our launch, there's been more attention brought to this issue, and we're excited that PowerMeter has helped demonstrate the importance of access to energy data. However, our efforts have not scaled as quickly as we would have liked, so we have decided to retire PowerMeter.
You will continue to have access to the product until September 16, 2011, after which time you will no longer be able to access your PowerMeter account. We know that having access to your energy information has helped you save energy and money. There are many options available for you from our device and utility partners. Please visit this page to learn more:
We also understand that having your historical energy data is important to you. We've made it easy for you to download your data. To export your PowerMeter data to a CSV (Comma Separated Values) file, log in to your account and go to "Account Settings." More information can be found here:
We appreciate your understanding and hope that you've enjoyed using Google PowerMeter. If you have questions about this announcement, please visit our FAQ pages at
Thank you,
Google PowerMeter team
© 2011 Google Inc. 1600 Amphitheatre Parkway, Mountain View, CA 94043
You've received this mandatory service announcement email to update you about important changes to your Google PowerMeter account.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Whole Cloud Thing Currently a big waste of time for everybody

Best wishes to my old friend Simon as he heads off for a new startup Bromium with this parting piece from GigaOM:
Crosby said the threat it [sic] to everything under the umbrella of the public web. “[U]nless we solve some of these problems,” he said, “the whole cloud thing is just a big waste of time for everybody."

Friday, 20 May 2011

Big Data

"Analyzing large data sets—so called big data—will become a key basis of competition, underpinning new waves of productivity growth, innovation, and consumer surplus as long as the right policies and enablers are in place."
So say McKinsey...
"Right policies and enablers" - yup - since Informed Consent has failed in the web maybe we just need "some good old consumer protection". I would credit that quote but the relevant privacy lawyer is a very private person :-) 

Monday, 16 May 2011

LIve Mesh

After burying FolderShare for several years in MSFT development, and then giving us a crufty Office add on, MSFT seem to have sorted themselves out with Windows Live Mesh, which has recently come out of beta.
Note an important aspect of this service is that the data does not necessarily have to reside in the cloud (c.f. dropbox) but the service offers to merely sync it across your devices - for those concerned about people looking at your content "at rest" in the cloud it's quite sensible. There's a REST API for access to the service - perscon sync service courtesy MSFT?
Right now in terms of apps Windows and Mac supported for syncing. Should imagine Windows for Mobile coming soon. No sync app for iPhone and IPad; web browsing gives "not available on mobile" so you need something like AtomicWebBrowser that can lie for you.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

National Trust go Digital Economy

Think you can help manage these sheep at Wimpole Hall Farm?  (Why are these lambs heading to that phone box with such purpose?) - Great to see such a grand institution as the National Trust "getting it".... FaceBook and mobile apps next?

Monday, 28 March 2011

Pocket Social from Ericsson Research

This was a poster at last weeks PerCom 2011 conference in Seattle.
Very related our work on dataware - it's nice to see a growing community looking at these issues