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My half marathon experiment

March 15, 2013

The Pebble watch

This weekend I am running the Reading Half Marathon for the second time.

Last year I did it in a relatively respectable 2:07, and this year – three kilos heavier but with a year’s more running experience under my belt and some helpful advice from my friend and colleague Keith – I’m aiming to get around in under two hours.

It’s not going to be easy – can you help me out with your words of encouragement and your dodgy taste in music?

Yes, I need your help. I recently received my long-awaited Pebble Smartwatch (pictured above). While the Runkeeper app isn’t yet available, this does mean I can control my music and read your tweets, right from my wrist.

So, in a possibly foolhardy move, I’ve set up a collaborative Spotify playlist, and I’m asking you – the people of the internets – to pick my running tunes for me. I need some good running tunes that will motivate me to keep up the pace. What can you suggest?

The rules:

  1. I won’t look at the playlist before I start – I want it to be a surprise
  2. You have until 8am on Sunday to add your tunes – that’s when I’m downloading the tracks from Spotify (in case of streaming problems while running – I’ll ask someone else to do this to maintain the surprise element)
  3. I can skip if I’ve heard a tune before (henceforth known as the Rickroll Rule)
  4. If there’s a tune that doesn’t help me pick up/keep up the pace, or which I really hate (or both), I can skip past that too (the Hawkwind rule)

I also want your encouragement while I run. Tweet me/mock me @sharonodea and I’ll (hopefully) see it on my Pebble. I’ll start running at shortly after 10am on Sunday 17 March, and all being well will be over the finish line by 12.15.

Thanks! I’m still undecided about live-tweeting as I run (as I did for the Ealing Half), but I’ll let you know how it goes after the event.

Breaking the echo chamber: diversity (or the lack of it) at tech events

March 3, 2013

Late last year the thorny topic of diversity (or lack of it) at technology events was in the spotlight again after the British Ruby Conference (BritRuby) was cancelled following outcry about its all-male, all-white speaker line-up. Following the controversy many men pledged to boycott all-male panels at tech conferences. The idea proved controversial, with bloggers making impassioned arguments for doing so, and as many putting the case against.

A month ago, I popped along to altUKGovCamp (with UKGovcamp postponed due to snow, the brilliant Lloyd Davis and James Cattell swung into action and swiftly convened an impromptu geek meetup event. An un-unconference, if you will.) where this quickly became a hot topic for conversation. Our discussion covered the full gamut of issues, like:

  • Is the lack of diversity an issue?
  • Is it merely a symptom of the makeup of the industry?
  • If it is a problem, what can be done about it?

This proved a lively discussion which generated a range of practical ideas, particularly from the rather brilliant tech entrepreneur Mary McKenna, who noted many of the issues which make women reluctant to put themselves forward to speak – nervousness, undervaluing your own skills – are also those which make women less likely to negotiate a pay rise. She’s already blogged her tips for successfully negotiating a better pay deal, and I said I’d follow up with a post on diversity at tech events. So here we are.

all male panel

A typical panel at a tech conference

Diversity in tech is important

And not just because I’m a sandal-wearing, Guardian-reading leftie. This is a knowledge economy which increasingly relies on digital skills to create products and deliver services. We need more skilled tech people. The world particularly needs skilled creative tech people who can focus on the needs of the customer and find creative solutions. So we need diversity in skills, experience, knowledge and thought, at all levels. Diversity makes tech better.

But the tech industry is male dominated – aren’t conference speakers just a reflection of the audience?

Women are a minority in the tech world, it’s true, particularly at senior levels. But is that chicken or egg? The lack of visible, high-profile women at these events only serves to reinforce the idea that tech is a male preserve.

All-male panels aren’t just the preserve of the tech field either; following the BritRuby conference bloggers took aim at conference organisers in all manner of industries. It’s clear conferences have a problem, and not just in male-dominated industries.

Diversity isn’t just about women

The current debates focus on women, but the fact is panels are overwhelmingly white, and very rarely include people with disabilities.>

So diversity shouldn’t be seen as a ‘women’s issue’; it’s about ensuring conference panels reflect the audiences they’re talking to. Inviting speakers from a wide range of backgrounds might bring a different point of view to the conference, which helps making talks and panels a lot more interesting. It’s been long known that diverse teams in the workplace are more successful– is there any reason the same wouldn’t be true for conferences?

As Mary McKenna pointed out, promoting diversity isn’t just about doing the right thing; it’s also something which makes commercial sense.

So if it makes so much sense, why are there so few women speakers at tech conferences?

Good question. Here’s some of the reasons which have been suggested:

  • because of a lack of confidence
  • because they lack experience and are unsure how to write a good proposal
  • because they don’t see other people like them speaking, and feel uncomfortable being the only woman there
  • because they don’t think their work will support sending them to the conference
  • because they have childcare or other commitments that limit their ability to travel
  • “we’d love to have more women on the panel, but we haven’t had any submit proposals”
  • Because conference organisers – consciously or otherwise – seek out male speakers more actively than female ones
  • Selection committees may be biased against female speakers when selecting papers
  • There are fewer women in the field in the first place, so the lack of women speakers just reflects this

So what can be done about it?

The discussion at altUKGovCamp covered a wide range of ideas. Widespread threats to boycott all-male panels have certainly succeeded in drawing conference organisers’ attention to the issue. What’s clear is that conference organisers have a clear role to play in promoting diversity in their conference lineups.

Quotas provoked some fierce debate, with many suggesting this is tokenistic and ultimately devalues the contribution of women who are selected – suggesting perhaps that they weren’t selected on merit alone. Others felt a firm commitment to have, say, women make up a third of speakers signals a strong signal to those attending that diversity is a real issue. But it’s also bloody hard work.

Conferences are big business, and conference organisers are not charities. Those conference organisers who are making real efforts to recruit more diverse speakers are to be applauded for their efforts. But the fact is, it is a real effort – this blogpost from Courtney Stanton explaining how she got 50% female speakers at a video game conference illustrates it can be a real pain, and when you’ve got venues to book and tickets to sell, it’s a hassle one can easily do without.

If you’re organising a conference, here’s some advice:

  • Timing. if speaking at your conference is contingent on attending all three days (plus a half-day travel each way) you’re already making it more difficult for someone with caring responsibilities to attend.
  • Say it. Why not put a diversity statement in your call for submissions, making it clear your conference values diversity and actively welcomes papers from women and other under-represented groups. Let people know they are welcomed (here’s a great example from J Boye)
  • Be proactive. Check websites focusing on women speakers, get in touch with potential speakers who may be reluctant to put themselves forward, ask potential speakers to recommend others.

But making conferences more diverse takes both sides. Women need to put themselves forward, too. Here’s some tips for women who’d like to speak at a conference but aren’t sure about how:

  • JFDI. Speaking at a conference is a great way of boosting your professional profile.
  • Speaking in front of hundreds of people is a little scary. But you don’t have to start there. If you’re not sure, start by running a session at an unconference or doing a quick Ignite-style presentation to get a feel for it, and work up from there. Starting at a lower-key event gives you a chance to practice your material and get over your nerves
  • Don’t undersell yourself. It’s all too easy to fall prey to imposter syndrome and think you’re not good enough. Fight those negative feelings! What’s the worst that could happen?
  • Make some noise. If you’re asked to speak at a conference, don’t keep it to yourself; mention it on your blog, LinkedIn, Twitter, and so on. Once you have a track record as a speaker you’re more likely to be asked again.
  • Advocate for other women. If you’re asked to speak at a conference, ask the organisers if they’re interested in hearing from more women. Get them in touch with some of the brilliant and talented women you know.

Having a greater variety of voices, backgrounds and experiences represented makes conferences better. But for that to happen, organisers need to be more proactive about it, and more of us need to get over our nerves and put ourselves forward.

To that end, Mary McKenna and I will be holding a session at the rescheduled UKGovCamp next week for anyone who’d like to raise their professional profile by speaking at events but isn’t sure where to start. We’d love to see you there.If you’ve got any other thoughts or suggestions on diversity at tech conferences, let me know via the comments.

Creative Commons photo credit: miss604 on Flickr

Hack yourself: the quantified self and social New Year’s resolutions

January 2, 2013

It’s January, and like a lot of people I overindulged during the festive season (and, if I’m honest, the rest of the year too). As 2012 drew to a close, I resolved to shape up in the year ahead – just like I do every year.

But research regularly shows New Year’s resolutions are a waste of time; research for the Journal of Clinical Psychology found just 8% of people who make resolutions stick with them.

So how can we do this differently? Taking inspiration from my day job, I’ve turned to metrics – because you can only manage what you can measure, right? Like a growing number of people, I’ve been tracking my weight, food intake and exercise using a range of apps and sites in a bid to become fitter and healthier.

Organisations have long since recognised the power of data to effect change; as well as the obvious balance sheet and bottom line, data helps business to understand their resources and marketing, while the government is (selectively) pushing for greater scrutiny of spending and outcomes through the release of open data.

But while the impenetrability of (and lack of interest in) spending data means Eric Pickles’ army of armchair auditors is likely to remain small, understanding and analysing metrics about ourselves has fast become mainstream. Growing numbers of people are tracking their food, moods, exercise, their alcohol intake, how well they sleep, and much else besides, in order to make lifestyle changes – an approach known as self quantifying.

Recording personal data on nutrition and the like used to be difficult, which is why only those with a serious interest in doing so would bother. But smartphones have been a game-changer; they’ve bought the tools used to measure, monitor and analyse in business and science into the palms of our hands – and into the private sphere.

As people become more aware of the amount of data that organisations gather about them, they’re becoming more aware of the potential to use data themselves. By marrying technology and life improvement , and tapping into the stream of data we generate, we can find new ways to improve our quality of life.

Growing numbers of people are doing just that, using self-tracking tools and methods to gain knowledge about themselves, others and the world around them. Some of the things self-trackers at the London Self-Quantifiers Meetup Group measure include: self-experimentation, behaviour monitoring, lifelogging, location tracking, digitizing body info, biometric data, psychological self-assessments (mood tracking), medical self-diagnostics and even personal genome sequencing.

People with long-term illnesses are using self-tracking or quantifying to understand their own patterns of illness, and in particular lifestyle triggers, which helps them better manage their illnesses.

Over the past two years, my iPhone and apps have helped me understand my sleep patterns, keep track of my food intake, monitor my weight and train for two half-marathons.

RunKeeper

Self-quantifying is being taken seriously by start-ups, with a wide range of companies launching new devices and software aimed at self-trackers – most notably the Nike FuelBand and the FitBit, which uses an accelerometer and altimeter to measure activity levels and sleep patterns.

The public sector has been quick to get in on the game; the NHS has developed a range of self-quantifying apps which help people measure (and so reduce) their alcohol intake and quit smoking. The cost of developing these will recouped if just a handful of people avoided a serious illness such as cancer by improving their lifestyle.

Insurers are looking at self-quantification, too, creating apps which help people to record their driving, and rewarding safer drivers with cheaper insurance.  It’s been suggested these apps provide a glimpse of the future of health care, in which a greater emphasis is placed on monitoring, to prevent disease and reduce medical costs (or, more cynically, to more efficiently calculate actuarial risk).

But ultimately, this is about outcomes, not outputs; it doesn’t matter how many calories I consumed or burned off today, what I really want to know is whether I can fit into those skinny jeans. So as with all open data exercises, the data isn’t enough; it’s what you do with the data that’s important.

And this is where the secondary function of Quantified Self apps kicks into play; using the power of group dynamics and feedback. The weight loss industry has long since employed group feedback (positive and negative) within programmes such as Weightwatchers. Some self-trackers are using social networks to share their progress data, gain feedback and receive positive reinforcement that helps them reach their personal goals. This augments the already diverse range of health, fitness and weightloss forums out there with further opportunities for goal-setting and peer motivation.

A growing number of apps encourage self-tracking through gamification — using game mechanics to encourage participation and competition with friends. Android app Boozerlyzer, helps people track their drinking and uses simple games to help them measure the effect of alcohol on co-ordination, reaction times, memory and emotions.

Data from the Boozerlyzer app is anonymised and aggregated to investigate the variation in people’s response to alcohol – just one of many ways in which self-tracking is producing useful scientific data.

Users of the Zeo headband, which tracks sleep quantity and quality by measuring brainwave activity, have already generated the largest-ever database on sleep stages, which revealed differences between genders in REM-sleep quantity, and has vastly improved understanding of sleep disorders.

In fact, hundreds of thousands of patients are sharing data on symptoms, treatments and triggers for their illnesses on websites such as CureTogether.

With a growing number of self-tracking apps and gadgets on the market, the scope for data collection widens, enabling users to analyse their own behaviour (to make lifestyle changes) and aggregate their data with others (to further understanding). As the usability of tracking apps improves, we’re seeing a surprising growth in data nerds – auditing not the government, but themselves, often with very positive results.

For more on self-quantifying, see Gary Wolf’s Quantified Self blog.

Time to tinker: why hackdays are brilliant

December 6, 2012


So, a couple of weeks back I had the enormous pleasure of working on ChaMPion, the winning project at the second UK Parliament Hack Day.

For the uninitiated, a hack day is nothing to do with phone hacking, Anonymous or GaryMcKinnon, but a themed event (usually over two days) where developers and designers get together to create usable apps or websites in a brief, intense period of work.  Hack days have been growing in popularity over the past five years or so, both in the commercial sector – where they’re a great way to generate new ideas for innovation and funding – and in the public sector, where hack days have been instrumental in turning open data into usable information for public good.

Here in the UK, Rewired State have been instrumental in championing and delivering public sector hack days, beginning with the first National Hack the Government day in 2009, and have since lent their talents (and that of their extensive and impressive network of 1,000 developers) to a host of commercial projects too, such as Honda’s Power of Minds event, in which developers worked with Honda’s own cultural engineers.

I helped to organise the first Parliament Hack last year; since moving on to financial services earlier this year, I thought I’d put that behind me. But when Mark Smitham asked if I’d join the team he was pulling together for this year’s Parly Hack, I jumped at the chance to work with such a talented, dedicated and generally rather brilliant bunch of people.

But I wondered what I, as someone with no coding skills, could bring to the project. The answer was a solid understanding of the business – the workings of Parliament and the needs of its users, gathered over two years spent there, working closely with a wide range of users and audiences.

So, what’s being on a hack team like?

They’re all different. Some people prefer to work alone. Others come to the event only with ideas and skills, and form teams on the day with others who can complement those skills.

Our team – Mark Smitham, Giuseppe Sollazzo, Lewis Westbury, Hadley Beeman, Glyn Wintle, Brett Husbands and me  – began work some weeks earlier, with a brainstorm (in a pub, naturally), where we looked at some of the available datasets and sketched out some of the potential problems which needed solving.

These broke down into a few broad areas:

  • Increasing transparency and making the workings of Parliament – the creation of new legislation and the work of MPs themselves – easier for the public to understand (early ideas included ‘Fiddler on the House’, a comparison site showing how hard your MP works and what they claim in expenses)
  • Apps or sites which would be useful to MPs (like access to real-time information)
  • Data visualisation which, while increasing transparency, also had the potential to embarrass MPs or Parliament (e.g. looking at the correlation between the marginality of a seat and the amount spent on stamps, so an MP could work out how many things they need to post in order to retain their seat)
  • Things which would just be funny (an early contender was described as “like Grindr, but for MPs”)

After this first session we divided up tasks to match our own skills, with Mark, Giuseppe and Lewis looking at existing datasets and how these could be combined, Hadley turning unusable datasets into usable ones, and me identifying other potential sources of data.

We met for a second session a week or so later, where we whittled ideas down and threw out some of those we would like to have done but didn’t have available data for, like the idea we had to improve scrutiny of bills in order to identify those which are being rushed or filibustered. Again, we assigned tasks to team members (I was to focus on creating wireframes for the shortlisted ideas), before the planning session moved on to a game of Cards Against Humanity, the best team-building tool ever made.

On the hack weekend itself, 100 or so developers began with a tour of the Houses of Parliament before moving on the The Hub Westminster to begin coding (I couldn’t make it in, so worked remotely). It was only that morning that the judging criteria was revealed, and it was this which swayed the final decision on which project to take forward – people want to find MPs who care about the issues they care about. Often their “declared interests” are not particularly meaningful or up to date, so we decided we could look at the content of their speeches, and create a tool that allows the user to enter a given topic and returns a list of MPs who have spoken about that topic, ranked by relevance.

Over the weekend, Giuseppe, Mark, Brett and Lewis mined the data, looking for keyword distribution by MP, developed functionality and the UI.  Giuseppe’s blogged a detailed write-up  of the development side. Meanwhile, I worked on design, creating a name and logo, collating assets and pulled together a convincing presentation on what the project was and what we wanted to achieve with it.

Our project: ChaMPion

ChaMPion is a website which helps people find the MP who cares most about the causes they do. It uses an analysis of Hansard, applying text analysis techniques to identify keywords by MP, in order to match users’ interests to the MP who most frequently talks about the subject in Parliament.

We produced this in response to growing political disengagement; turnout at this month’s elections was at a peacetime low. Coverage of Parliament on TV is generally focused on adversarial politics, in particular PMQs, leaving people confused about what MPs actually do all day.

We wanted people to understand that what happens in Parliament really does make a difference, and that MPs’ workload covers a vast range of subjects and interests. Whatever you’re interested in, there will be an MP who’s fighting that corner; this app aims to show just who that is, helping to connect people with the person championing their cause in our democratic system.

The winners

Coding continued through the night, with 28 projects completed before judging began on day 2 – here’s a full list. Each team had just a few minutes to present and demo their hack to a panel of judges comprised of MPs and officials.

We were delighted to win the coveted ‘Best in Show’ prize, given the high calibre of other projects. Other winners were:

  • Parliament 2015, a visualisation of historical data
  • Have your Say, a site which enables people to debate on the issues debated in Parliament
  • Toe the Line, an interactive data visualisation on Parliament’s most rebellious MPs
  • Bernard, which uses real-time data on what’s going on in Parliament right now (one of the creators, Tim, has blogged about that here)

What happens next?

Mark, Lewis and Giuseppe are continuing to refine the hack and fix bugs. We’re not sure where to take it next, but we’re keen to get your feedback and ideas on what to do with it. Have a play with it, and let us know what you think: http://www.champion.puntofisso.net.

We each won a Raspberry Pi, so I have resolved to teach myself to code, even just a tiny bit.

What did I learn?

This was my third hackday, and only my second as a participant. Every time, I come away with a feeling that hack days are a truly remarkable tool for innovation and creativity. Every time, the quality of outputs generated in two days and with the aid of beer and pizza is frequently well above that created in months of office-based work.

Given I’m not a developer, I was nervous that I’d be a spare part. I was wrong; in fact, it really reaffirmed my feeling that teams which include someone who understands the business create better outputs, because they help to focus work on the needs of the end user and the context in which the project exists. It’s this I do in my day job, and it was great to remind myself of why it’s good to have strong working relationships with your developmer team.

This time around, I came away with a particularly nagging feeling that nearly every organisation would benefit from adopting the spirit – if not the precise method – of the hack day.

Lately I’ve been reading Dan Pink’s Drive, which looks at motivation for success. Pink argues that traditional notions of motivation – chiefly, that if you pay more you get better results – are outdated in a knowledge economy which relies on creativity and ideas. Instead, the secret to high  performance and satisfaction is the need to direct our own lives (autonomy), to learn and create new things (mastery) and to do better by ourselves and our world (purpose). If the thought of a whole book on this makes you all tl:dr, there’s a lovely animated precis from the RSA here.

Hack days tap into all three of these motivational needs – talented people choose their own ideas and projects, use the time to develop their own skills in a low-risk, low-reward environment, to make cool stuff that makes the world a slightly better place – to make things which are truly great.

A handful of organisations already build this need for autonomy, mastery and purpose into their way of working; Google famously gives its staff 20% of their time to develop their own projects, and it’s this free time which led to some of their most successful end products, including Gmail.  Insurance firm Aviva invited employees to come up with ideas for apps and  were amazed to receive hundreds, many of which made it to finished products. Wired reports that ‘time to tinker’ phenomenon is becoming increasingly widespread in technology firms.

But thinking beyond Silicon Valley (or Silicon Roundabout) is this something that more organisations could benefit from doing, even just as a one-a-year event? Having attended a handful now, I really think it is. Think what your own employees could do, given the time, space and permission to make something brilliant.

Developing trust in the digital workplace

October 22, 2012

Here’s a little something I wrote for CMS Wire, as part of their series on intranets and the digital workplace this month.

In offices the world over, a quiet revolution is underway. The costs of technology have fallen, the quality of social platforms vastly improved, and senior management attitudes have changed; after many years when it was simply an aspiration, or a buzzword, the digital workplace is fast becoming a reality.

Using social and collaborative tools, more and more of us are breaking free of the office and working flexibly for all or part of the time – so that work is an activity, not a place.

While secure, reliable and usable tools are an important element of a successful digital workplace, technology is not itself a panacea; to make it work you need the right policies and processes in place too – and the people involved need to trust one another.

A recent survey by Microsoft found 82% of businesses now support flexible working. But while seven in ten managers say they trust their employees to be productive when working from home, employees are far more cynical about one another: only 52% trust their colleagues to be productive when working away from the office.

This presents a barrier to continued growth in online working; teams cannot deliver unless they trust each other. But to build trust in virtual teams – when often the members have never even met each other – employers need to ensure the right factors are in place to enable it.

So just how can organisations develop employee trust in their digital workplace?

First, realise that trust doesn’t just happen. Too many organisations introduce collaboration technologies, and simply expect silos to disappear, with productive, cross-functional teams emerging in their place. Often, silos exist for reason – because the people in them know each other, and understand their own role. Successful digital workplaces recognise that virtual teams need time, space and tools to develop solid working relationships.

Conversely, virtual teams often have a honeymoon period, a brief time when people are willing to give them a shot. Under pressure to perform, groups quickly develop what’s termed swift trust – a kind of benefit of the doubt. This tends to decay quickly, but it can provide the glue that keeps teams together until more lasting trust has developed.

Developing deeper bonds in the digital workplace requires us to use our tools in less obvious ways. Often digital workplace strategy focuses on facilitating work tasks, but not on how to reproduce the experience of a being a member of a workforce in order to reduce feelings of isolation and increase engagement.

Ambient awareness

Lee Bryant of Dachis Group champions the importance of ambient awareness – the office chatter which gives people a greater understanding of their organisation’s work – as something which “oils the wheels” of digital workforces. While some argue social activity streams are an unwelcome distraction from ‘real work’, in replicating those overheard office conversations they keep people in the loop and can ultimately lead to improved productivity.

Successful digital workplace launches have found tools have had wider adoption – and achieved greater success – when they can be used for social as well as more obviously work-related activity, for instance by including interest-based social communities. Allowing people to talk about both their personal and professional lives builds empathy and interpersonal trust between people who may not have met face-to-face.

Provide tools, not rules

This connective tissue is stronger when it’s able to develop organically, with employers providing the tools but not prescribing precisely how and when they can be used. There are parallels here between physical and online spaces; when a business creates a meeting room, it defines the rules for the room (how you book it, when it’s available), and sets up the space, but never defines precisely how the room must be used. Social spaces are like meeting rooms.

In German there’s even a word for this: Nutzungoffenheit, which – loosely translated – means the potential of technologies only manifests itself when people have made sense of them and incorporated them into their own routines.

This phenomenon means it’s difficult to predict precisely what impact digital workplace tools will have on the workforce until they have been introduced. Corporate culture also impacts heavily on the degree to which collaboration will be embraced.

Lead from the middle

However, in all but the smallest organisations the introduction of enterprise social marks a significant shift from top-down to peer-to-peer communication. While a move away from old ‘command and control’ management contributes to networked productivity, it moves the balance of power away from managers and leaders as gatekeepers of information.

One unintended consequence is that this – combined with the decreased visibility that comes with flexible working – can further undermine trust in leadership. Edelman’s annual Trust Barometer found trust in CEOs fell by 12% in the last year alone. With teams increasingly working virtually, senior execs need to find new ways to connect with their workforces to gain and maintain trust in their leadership.

Senior leaders need to ‘walk the talk’, using enterprise social tools and blogs just as others might ‘walk the floor’ in a more traditional organisation, while recognising that in a digital workplace a command and control style of leadership is often less effective than modelling desired behaviours.

Jonathan Phillips suggests leaders should be highly visible on the intranet, and not just in news stories and CEO blogs: “They should ask questions, participate in online debate, solicit personal feedback, seek input to key initiatives. They should comment on other employee blogs.”

Leaders must demonstrate that they believe enterprise social is work and not work avoidance; by using social tools themselves, leaders give employees permission to do the same, and in turn let employees know they are trusted to deliver.

Successful organisations will trust their own employees to work effectively without command and control, and provide them with tools and time to establish social bonds with their peers in order to work effectively in virtual teams. Such organisations recognise that trust is a reciprocal relationship between employer and employee, where trust is repaid with greater flexibility, engagement and performance on both sides.

QR WTF: transitory technology and internet immortality

September 6, 2012

Image

An unquestioning press release re-hash on The Guardian’s website today claimed “traditional graveyards are being transformed through technology with interactive headstones providing a revolutionary way for people to remember loved ones.”

A £300 QR code etched into granite, claim Dorset funeral directors Chester Pearce, will enable visitors to learn all about the person buried, rather than being limited to a name, age and date of birth and death.

Or will it? QR codes attract significant criticism for being fiddly and hard to use, but in many cases this is simply because they’re used in entirely the wrong contexts.

My concern in this case, though, is that people are being sold a transitory technology for what’s supposed to be a lasting memorial. Let’s look at the issues:

  • The QR code links through to a website giving details of the deceased, as well as providing a comment feature where people can share memories.
  • All well and good – for now. But how long will this last? Who curates the content? Who ensures the domain remains up in five years, ten years?
  • Then let’s look a little further ahead. Despite a great deal of hype, signs are pointing towards QR codes not really gaining traction with smartphone users.  People are talking about the (far less faffy) Near Field Communication protocol performing the same job, better. I would wager that the QR code won’t be around in 2030, let alone 2080.
  • If my wager is wrong, that’s ok, because I’m pretty sure this website won’t exist either – and nor will the ‘lasting memorial’ websites these QR codes point to.
  • So what are we left with, in 2030? A weird design, etched in stone, which no device can decode, and (even if it could) almost certainly won’t point to a live website.

Claims that the QR codes will be “useful to those visiting graveyards to research their family tree” in the future ring very hollow once you think the thing through.

I’m no fan of QR codes, but in the right contexts they perform a useful task. What are those contexts?

As Bruce Willis’s case against Apple over the right to bequeath digital purchases highlights the fleeting nature of online content, many are starting to look at their digital legacy. As content increasingly becomes digital-only, it’s right that we consider the permanence of what we leave behind. But leaving a QR code as your memorial means that you’re merely one whose name was writ in water, not marble.

(with thanks to Adrian Short for the Keats quote).

Hello again

August 24, 2012

Forgive me, dear readers: it has been seven months since my last blog post. Perhaps you’ve been wondering where I am.

Mostly I’ve been blogging elsewhere – over at Intranetizen.com I’ve been wittering on about a bunch of intranet-related topics. Knocking out one blog post a month is proving a little easier when I have three fellow editors giving feedback and telling me to publish.

Here’s a few of my recent posts:

But while it’s given my content a bigger audience, it has given me less to talk about here on my own site, and even less time to write anything.

I’ve also been busy talking about intranets in real life too. I spoke at IntraTeam over in Copenhagen back in Feburary, and at Advanced Intranets and Portals in Amsterdam in May. Back in June I had the great pleasure of co-hosting IBF Live’s 10th anniversary special, where Deutsche Bank’s John Stepper and I presented our top ten intranet mantras.

I was also honoured to join the advisory board for Jane McConnell’s Digital Workplace Trends Survey, collaborating (online, of course) with a stellar group of digital workplace practitioners to plan the next survey and to interpret the results when they come in. The survey goes live in a few weeks’ time and I’m already looking forward to seeing the findings.

But the biggest change has been in my work life: in April I left my role at UK Parliament and joined Standard Chartered Bank as Senior Manager, Online Communications. As well as being a huge change of scene, it’s also a change in focus, as my new role covers external as well as internal online projects. It’s been a busy few months and an exciting new challenge, working with such a huge and diverse global audience across a wide range of channels.

So between working, running, and blogging elsewhere, and life generally getting in the way, this little corner of the web has been sadly neglected. Sorry. While I plan to continue blogging about intranets and the digital workplace over at Intranetizen, I will try and keep this blog up too, with (occasional) musings on digital communications both internally and externally. Watch this space.

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