There has been lots written about knowledge in recent times. How the interenet has made knowledge ‘open’ and how social media is enabling enterprises and individuals to share information cost effectively, reducing the trasncation cost of communicating and socialising to really low levels. And we’ve had the eLearning industry come and (nearly, hopefully, go) and got a place where Google is indexing print works as well as the web.  Knowledge is becoming very open indeed.

And yet we’re still in a position where one of the main industries that create knowledge, Higher Education, are bound by arcane copyright laws.  I say arcane because there is no reason why they need be.  We have a situation where Bristol University – but one of the Universities I could get stats for but not atypical – spends £376000 on books in 2006/7 or £22 per student and £2 455 847 on serials or £142 per student.  Thats nearly £2.5 million pounds in one year on buying in the knowledge produced mainly by academics funded to do their work by the taxpayer through research bodies like the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)

There are approimately 171 Universities and Colleges of Higher Education in the UK.  They won’t all spend as much as Bristol.  But if the average spend was just half of that it would amount to £213 000 750. A lot of money for something where the cost of an open solution would be negligible and would actually be fit for purpose. 

But what really grates is that as a taxpayer and someone involved in research and who likes to knowl what people involved in similar research are doing there’s a big chunk of knowledge that I am excluded from unless I pay for it (again).  It’s copyrighted.  Danah Boyd has written about the frustration of being someone who is essentially doing Public Good and paid to share their knowledge of the world through the research work they’ve done, being tied down to a closed system.  Sure many academics can get around this by publishing drafts of their work or amended versions.  And some Universities are biting back by creating Open Access Repositories such as OpenDOAR (which now has over 1200 listings).  
 

opendoarlow.gif

But this is still a minnow against the publishing empires like Thomson-Reuters that control the knowledge around the Academy. 

So what could be done?  We’ll there are *huge* obstacles to change, most notably the fact that citations are the means through which University departments are measured and the existing process of peer review – the practices in academia are hard-wired into improving the quality of the work and hence the amount of money they get through the Research Assessment Exercise (REA) which is managed by the HEFCE.  However, if the HEFCE were brave enough to make true open knowledge part of their remit we could have publishers required to produce content under a more open attribution non-commercial license for example.  And if some publihers decided against doing this I’m sure there would be no-end of  social businesses willing to provide a simple open framework to publish on.  Providing a fit-for-purpose license for academic work should be key to HEFCE’s work and you’d then have the public able to engage with academic debate and see their output and be able to engage directly with it.  Moreover, we’d have URIs to point to.  We’d have concepts that could be referenced and aggregated and the data sliced any number of ways, because as good as Google Scholar is, the disjointed and incoherenet indexing of existing academic knowledge means relevant content only exists within the publishers portfolio of journals and not on the wider web of content.   We’re not all going to be able to be constructive in our commentary on string theory but there are sufficiently knowledgeable communities around any subject matter to make it worthwhile.

The HEFCE is currently undergoing a review of its next ‘bibliometric’ system, REF and it’s a good time to air these views so that we can start to get the knowledge out of the closed commercial silos and out into the world.

 

A shiny new rattle in a less shiny new office.

Office

The site ain’t right yet but it’s getting there [thanks Paul].  And the offices are super good.  Come visit!


mail order, originally uploaded by JamesB.

My uncle has been selling cloth by mail order catalogue now for over thirty years.  the operation is a might slimmer now that it was all that time ago, as is he.

He’s retiring soon.   For those thirty plus years though he’s managed to sell cloth by text alone.  Text.  No images.  I tell a lie, they produced a glossy brochure back in the halcyon days on the mid 80s.  It bombed.  There is something in his rather ‘lateral’ descriptions that people like.  He gives you the gist of what it is but doesn’t quite tell you.  It’s a bit of a game and people like playing, not loads, but enough to pay a wage.  I’m sad to think it won’t be around for much longer. There aren’t even that many archive copies to well, archive and keep for posterity and perhaps even repackage as a nod to a more fun yet innocent and certainly quirkier bygone business age [remember The Gaffer?]. 

He has a lot of fans does Uncle Alan, most of his customers buy because of him or rather their perception of him; they send him ‘fan mail’ disguised as orders.  He also pisses a lot of people off.  He can be pretty direct in his humour [I dare not show you the front cover of the recent catalogue].  No political correctness here which is quite refreshing in an age when everything seems so anodyne, watered down to offend no-one but please no-one either.  A friend of mine who works in advertising said it was the best bit of copy-writing she’d ever seen.  I think I agree.  Just thought I’d share that with you.

I find it quite staggering how much dotcom M&A activity going on right now.  IPOs seem to be coming through daily in a race between the big four Google, Yahoo!, News Corp and Microsoft not to lose out.    All seem to be spending over revenue growth in activity not seen since the boom/bust days of 1997-2001

Of the biggies, Google seem to me to be the main player as they continue to milk overseas markets and gain profit increases – up 11% this year mostly due to a strong 2nd half – and this despite Yahoo!’s 37% drop in profits posted last quarter due to a decline in corporate advertising online:

Google-owned Web sites generated revenue of $1.63 billion,
or an 84 percent increase from $885 million in the third
quarter of 2005. Google earned 60 percent of its total revenue
from its own sites, versus 56 percent a year earlier.

Revenue from affiliated Web sites using Google’s AdSense
programs accounted for 39 percent of revenue, or $1.04 billion,
a 54 percent rise over year-earlier revenue of $675 million.

Google’s growth rate is two to three times faster than its
Internet peers: eBay Inc. (Nasdaq:EBAYnews) at 31 percent, Yahoo Inc.
(YHOO.O) at 19 percent and major software rival Microsoft Corp.
(Nasdaq:MSFTnews), which has revenues growing at about 10 percent.

And this disparity is down to the strength of ppc ads rather than discretionary banner ads, which Yahoo! relies on to serve up to its rising number of users.  As ad spend drops discretionary spend is hit hardest. However, Yahoo! should come back next year according to The Examiner:

Wall Street has been frustrated with Yahoo for most of this year,
largely because the company hasn’t been targeting online ads as
effectively as Google Inc., the Internet search leader that runs the Web’s largest marketing network.

Yahoo’s improved ad platform, code-named "Panama," is designed to close the gap with Google.

But it’s not just that Google’s revenue growth and search platform is so strong but they genuinely seem to have a strategic roadmap that the others lack [though I suspect Murdoch has a vision].  The brand mantra to "organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful" is backed up by their 10 things they know to be true of which "do one thing really well" is spot-on.  They do search whereas the others have been pulled and swayed in other directions. And search pays.  But they’re also building up an enviable swathe of GTD browser-based products [buying up writerly etc etc], providing chat, docs, spreadsheets and calendar to organise your life around them; they’re becoming indispensible.  No-one else offers such interoperable life support.  So Google  on the one hand  allow  advertisers to do ppc well and on the other they’re building  lifetime utility based value amongst users from which to serve up ppc.  Yahoo!’s  many excellent services [del.icio.us and flickr]  don’t hang together in the same way; they remain disparate stand alone utilities.

Be interesting to see how widgets [what Microsoft calls gadgets] take off next year  with their support in Microsoft Vista etc.  Google isn’t really set up for widgets in the way that Yahoo! is with it’s purchase of Konfabulator, now Yahoo! widgets.   The melding of webservices and client  app  possibilities in widgets for the development of new services is massive… and perhaps this is where Yahoo! has a chance to bite back?


the new office…, originally uploaded by JamesB.

So I’ve been freelance now for 2 weeks, trying to cohere some sort of business which I’ve called Rattle.    The business is there to provide planning, service design and research concerning digital/social media. 

And in that 2 weeks I’ve learnt a hell of a lot. Firstly, always read and check your employment contract and don’t sign anything that’s anti-competitive or plain bad for you [thankfully, I did check]. Secondly, get some solid legal and financial advice because if you don’t get that right you might as well not bother and lastly, remember why you’re doing it and believe in yourself, because if you don’t no-one else will.  That last bit isn’t easy but I can heartily recommend Tom Hodgkinson’s  treatise on being free from the man who brought us The Idler. 
I rather like the history of the term:

"medieval mercenary warrior," 1820, from free + lance; apparently a coinage of Sir Walter Scott’s. Fig. sense is from 1864; the verb is first attested 1903.

I’m also going to be developing an ecommerce business, which I’ve been banging on about to those who will listen for 2 years+ now and finally have the time and money to make it happen.  More when it does…

John Sanbourne has just talked through ebay express [which was news to me] at the [otherwise pretty disappointing] BTWEEN forum in Bradford.    His slides should be on the BTWEEN site later.  The development of express has been prompted by the market for ‘convenience’ purchases, instant gratification, rather than an auction, this is "buy now" as a sub-brand to capture those searching for products via search engines and make the process of purchasing a simple one.  It’s interesting to see how they strip away the ‘experience’ that has made ebay such a phenomenon, the social, ‘frictional‘  experience  and replace it with standard, homogenous experience in the form of style guides and shopping basket processes; go from the car boot sale of bric-a-brac to the retail store, from emotional, experiential purchases to more functional purchases – the sorts of things that you can search around and buy instantly [and of course price comparison sites are massive drivers for this development].  However, to do this is a massive job.  Think of professional photographs for the things you may want to buy.  Think of 11000 photographs of things you might want to buy at a category level!   Express then serves to reinforce ebay as a key sales platform  putting it up against direct sellers to gain some of the affiliate marketing so key to web revenue models.

Express comes to the UK later in the summer.


spies, originally uploaded by JamesB.

The BBC has opened up its catalogue going back to 1937. Well Done MattB and Tom. It’s a wonderful thing.

I worked in TV as a researcher/AP for the BBC between 1999 and 2002 first on Timewatch [for  a lovely bloke called Tilman Remme] and then in Current Affairs [and much later a short stint at Newsnight]. It’s great to be able to get the info. Though I don’t remember getting contributions from Hitler, Kim Philby and Anthony Blunt for this film – my favourite ;-) [methinks the 'contributors descriptor is a little generous as it covers production staff, historical figures and interviewees]. I had 3 glorious months at the National Archives in Kew researching this one, my first job for the beeb.   Uncovering the many great stories that came out of the IIWW.  The film couldn’t do justice to the richness of what we found.   Of course there are bound to be issues with the cataloging – not least of which is that I don’t get a credit here grr… Still, you got to love those librarians.  Working diligently, without any of the glamour that most people see as a perk of working at the beeb.  They’re kinda machinic in the way they construct and adhere to strict data protocols.  I suppose in that sense they’re very high level code really.  Respect!

So the BBC is plugging into the world.   It’s all been said before but how great it is to be able to pull out and aggregate content by contributor, date, series, episode, channel etc and work that into bottom up data from other sources like wikipedia entries for shows, presenters, events. 

I see a useful application in this as a social documenting tool.  To be able to visualise the key ‘memes’ in broadcast by the BBC by year and see how that correlated with wider events.  Is the BBC a useful barometer for the zeitgeist?  Does it lead or follow?  Could be quite fascinating…

Sainsburys is to open GPs [doctors] surgeries in its stores.  Are supermarkets taking their responsibility for creating a nation of lard-arses really seriously?  This hasn’t been picked up much and I’m quite surprised it hasn’t.  The move to incorporate Doctor’s surgery’s in store is obviously part of Sainsburys desperate attempt to make its stores competitive again [after failing against Tesco] and pick up custom by making its stores multi-use; spaces for a variety of tasks not just retail consumption. It’s a logical if not particularly welcome move on from coffee stores in books shops and banks and marks another nail in the coffin of the small retailer in Britain’s high streets

What next?  Hospitals with leisure facilities?  Nurseries in supermarkets?  Police surgeries in supermarkets – [done - this time at a Tesco's]?
And what of the social exclusion such policies entail?  The cost of public transport or private transport means that actually getting to these retail spaces that will cater for our needs is going to be relatively more costly for those from poorer areas who will often have further to travel. 

It’ll be interesting to see if the move to small being the new big online will affect our consumption patterns and use of larger offline stores.  Will we be more likely to want smaller, niche offline suppliers?  Or are these monolithic supermarkets, above, going to further drive out smaller suppliers through price competition and economies of scale, in all but ’boutique’ retail areas of larger cities.   How will the nature of the products they sell determine their dynamics? For example commoditised products compete mainly on price and to a lesser extent customer service whereas service-based and niche products compete on the basis of provenance and knowledge of supplier. 

Another innovation recently, this one in time rather than space: a surgery marketing plastic surgery you can have in your lunch hour.  Needles to say it’s been lambasted by all the health pros and policy wonks and needless to say it will be hugely successful and copied by all.

.

Link: Los Angeles Times: ( the handmade life ).

Interesting article in the LA Times [reg req'd - find here] around the craft movement which kinda supplements what I wrote earlier about Etsy.  The article is useful because it brings out some of the social and psychological drivers underpinning the new craft movement:
 

Around midnight, Vickey decided to stop for the day. She had sewn a
purse that would be going out in the morning. "I didn’t do craft for
political reasons," she said, stretching, "it just makes me feel good.
And I can make a little bit of money off it. Not much, but some. I feel
like I can actually finish something." So much in life has no endpoint.
So much is uncertain. At least when you make a pillow, you know when
you are done. ….  "I like making one thing for one
person," Vickey said. "After they get it in the mail, they write to me
and tell me that they are happy. That’s the best."

I’ve got some stick lately for using crafts as an example of a new social movement and as a metaphor for the activities of post-modern rebellion from overt consumerism, but I’m sticking to my guns [or barricades or whatever].  The craft movement has always had a rebellious and punk-art element [no surprise that it's quite feminist] and that aesthetic sensibility and attitude now seems more prevalent amongst crafty folk.  And this aesthetic is finding an audience amongst those looking for one-offs provided with honesty and transparency combined with some of the values of the folk-craft movement such as community. 

There’s a revolution going on it’s one which your mother wouldn’t recognise – a friend was recently asked to knit on stage with chicks on speed! – another example of the ‘cool’ currency of craft and why I think it’s gonna tip.  And Etsy has a model to push it over:

Etsy.com, a virtual
marketplace specifically for handmade goods, was launched this summer.
Robert Kalin, its creator, is still in his early 20s and missed out on
the dot-com bomb. He brought together the heads of the two most popular
free crafting forums, Jean Railla of Getcrafty and Leah Kramer of
Craftster (motto: "No Tea Cozies Without Irony"), and brainstormed a
crafters-only alternative to EBay. "It can be fairly difficult to set
up an e-commerce site on your own. Plus, a lot of people had criticisms
about EBay—your stuff gets buried under everyone else’s, or the items
didn’t have the irreverent feel they were looking for," said Kalin. "We
made Etsy because EBay has stopped innovating and keeps raising their
fees. In a market where competition spurs innovation and price
reductions, EBay has had little of one and none of the other." Plus,
searching for items in a text-based format, he said, is so 1999. On
Etsy you can search by color with a color-picker, or by geographic area
with a map.

Kalin, an MIT dropout, thinks in metaphors: EBay
is to Etsy as corporate agribusiness is to organic farming. EBay is
Goliath; Etsy is David. EBay has 8,900 employees and Etsy has four,
therefore EBay has mass, but Etsy has speed. [LA Times]

Etsy’s UI is getting a bit ‘messy’ with some beautiful but largely indulgent navigational tools that allow you to search by for example colour or material.  Good for PR but probably given more weight that it deserves for diving into the products on sale.  Despite losing its simplicity and logical navigation with some feature creep [though still soooo much better than ebay's] it does not affect the USP which is being bolstered with some kick-arse functionality coming through:

  • A special section where members can make requests to have things made and sellers can put in offers to make them
  • in-site messaging
  • something involving real-time interaction

These developments will really help with creating more touch points for social engagement and ‘negotiation’.  And this matters because the platform is far from being just about economics:  a search for meaning and
satisfaction in work is being complimented by the self-actualising
consumer looking to define themselves through  others, through the
provenance of the product and the values of the wider craft community and the platform needs to facilitate this if it is to succeed.  And I’m convinced it will.

Ben just alerted me to this new service from Amazon [but now I see it's gone meme mental..].

When we think of interfaces between human beings and computers, we usually assume that the human being is the one requesting that a task be completed, and the computer is completing the task and providing the results. What if this process were reversed and a computer program could ask a human being to perform a task and return the results? What if it could coordinate many human beings to perform a task?

What if? indeed…

The latest Amazon initiative is very ambitious, not in its ‘technicalness’ but in its sociality.  This is a big deal.  It’s applying the dynamics of adwords which pushes ‘appropriate’ content to websites, to ‘pull’ in appropriate information and convert that into usable computer readable data.

… the Amazon Mechanical Turk web service solves the problem of building
applications that until now have not worked well because they lack
human intelligence. Humans are much more effective than computers at
solving some types of problems, like finding specific objects in
pictures, evaluating beauty, or translating text. The idea of the
Amazon Mechanical Turk web service is to give developers a programmable
interface to a network of humans to solve these kinds of problems and
incorporate this human intelligence into their applications.

The "Mechanical Turk" is e ssentially a labour exchange for micro-tasks, or Human Intelligence Tasks [vis a vis Artificial Intellugence]- the kind of things that computer-based intelligence just can’t do as effectively as you or me – such as finding objects in pictures. 

What kind of micro tasks?  Well if these were personal tasks they’d be of the scratching your arse variety.  They’re *that* micro.   But these tasks being predominantly around product and editorial opinion the micro-tasks range from your "image adjustment" [i.e. finding objects or views on appropriate images] to "produce desciption content" [i.e. does this describe your understanding of a product well.] One of the main uses at the moment is from Amazon’s search A9 – which is trying to find best fit pictures of businesses in street level photography – which will improve their search ‘effectiveness’.

But let’s be straight here – your views don’t matter on their own.  You’re one of a crowd. And in one case a 16367 big crowd where your views can be  quantified and statistical significance can be achieved and the data munged so scripts can use it. 

So, Amazon and their clients are paying for consumer research?  Kind of.  Some of it is sub-editing, proofing work but all of it is by your customers, by ‘real’ people – and that constitutes research.  It’s the ideal business scenario – getting your customers to describe the things that they would buy, findging out what matters to them.  But instead of analysing the information there are scripts used to transfer it straight to use.

The Mechanical Turk is a great concept for exchange.  But my final point is that I believe MT is also an extension of the loyalty card scheme, an extension of customer-centric marketing, for two reasons:

1. Amazon is too big to do effective "marketing as conversation" type customer engagement – it just can’t. But Amazon is as Chris Anderson states a "Long Tail" business, perhaps the best example of all, and it needs to deal with its customers personally – have a high level of interaction.  So how can Amazon ‘reward’ people for their contribution to their effort if it can’t thank you in person?  Financially, of course.  These payments are nothing more than the financial equivalent of saying "thank you".   The payments are *tiny*.  To make it worthwhile you’d have to be doing a lot of HITS.  And to actually understand the task and then undertake it takes a minimum of a few minutes.  $.03 for a few minutes work? Perhaps if you were so on the margins of the economy – but who, with a computer and a bank account ‘is’?  You’re likely to do this work, this HIT, as a loyal customer.

2. As your HITS payments literally hit your Amazon account you are able to use them to buy good or "Transfer your earnings to your bank account or to your Amazon.com gift certificate balance.".   Would you really exchange that $1.20 into cash? Or would you use it to ‘subsidise’ that "special offer" that Amazon is thrusting at you?  Is it worth transfering such low amounts?  I’m sure Amazon expect most customers to retain their balance in Bank Amazon and redeem tham as you would Nectar points.