Sunday, 28 March 2010

GMOs - whats not to like

While I tend to regard myself as generally pro-technology and pro-science I find I also have a long and deeply held anti-GMO 'position'. Glyn Moody's recent post on the subject reminded me of this and stirred me to ponder this view.

In essence you can take it as a given that I am as deeply suspicious of the corporatism so ably detailed in Glyn's (and Andrew Leonard's) post as they are. If you're not then pretty much any scientific/technical objections are going to fall a long way second.

A very good friend of mine worked for a while in a unit within the EC that amongst other things used to test for the presence of GMOs in various crops both in field trials and on the dockside. In a purely statistical sense a negative presence (even in parts per billion) does not disprove the null hypothesis regarding whether or not the sample is 'contaminated' by GMOs. This is depressing enough as we know that field trials of GMOs always leak into the surrounding environment - those field buffers are a joke.

Then consider that lab testing of the GMO prior to release focuses entirely - as is common in almost all such trails across big pharma, household products, cosmetics etc as well as agro-ind and foodstuffs - on the individual GMO molecule. Now, for sure, we can worry and lobby and campaign about the intellectual monopolies, the corporate power, the loss of power of the (mostly) poor farmers around the world but, in a world knocked sideways by the shock of the recession and riding unsuspecting into a future where the consequences of the tactics adopted in repsonding to this, in many ways that argument looks like being for the most part one of righteous indignation. The recent decision (February) by India's environment minister Jairam Ramesh to revoke a previous decision (October 2009) by India's Genetic Engineering Approvals Committee (GEAC) to allow GMOs into the country's aubergine industry does I would agree suggest that protest on the scale witnessed in India can acheive what I fear will ultimately be temporary and may already be fruitless closing of the legislative door to GMOs. As the 'anti' community put it - "I am no lab rat".

As Rachel Carson detailed half a century ago it is not necessarily the presence of a single 'toxin', the changing of a single part of the DNA of an organism, the release of a single aerosol that gives cause for concern. Rather it is the cocktail that it creates in the natural environment. And this is never tested, never. "It can't be", claim the corps. So, go ahead anyway? How sane does that sound? And in no time you're back to trying to disprove the null hypothesis.

In the meantime, incredibly complex issues get a bye-line which while useful for lazy journos, the gullible and others, hides that very complexity and allows much bad stuff to happen 'out of focus'. So, for example, diesel engines end up being seen as 'good' compared to petrol and taxed accordingly. It's as if no one thought to look at the chemical composition of the exhaust outputs of a normal diesel engine; the mix of SOx, NOx and other pollutants that have far greater impacts on the upper atmosphere than C02, not to mention the particulates.....

Then there's housing; the stuff that houses are made of bleed chemicals into your often hermetically sealed 'safe' environment - insulating materials, plaster, paint, varnish, PVC, concrete, man made fibres - while you add fitted carpets, double glazing, air fresheners and the full array of the supermarkets 'household' products aisle. Then personal grooming. Yuk. And we're surprised at the rise in non specific respiratory disease in children? Have a wild guess. No single element can be blamed, the cocktail most certainly can. We tested it.....here's how.

Child 2 shortly after birth was diagnosed as requiring a ventilator thingy. We were astonished. But then we lived in a late 1980s 'box' backing onto the M3 with a distinct shortage of greenery, fitted carpets, double glazing etc. Then we moved - surrounded by trees, cul de sac, wooden floors, draughty doors (yes yes the heating bills - simple - no heating, wear a jumper). And you know what, child 2 stopped the ventilin on the day we moved in. We are getting sick from and should be sick of this random atmospheric cocktail that is our everyday lung filler.

Which brings me back to GMOs. You can't put the genie back in the bottle once its out there (rather like option 2 of the OS consultation) and (again like the OS options) in the interests of a powerful lobby (CBI, big pharma et al) (or in the case of OS, GB's awe of TBL) the interests of the many are sacrificed on the back of some phony economic orthodoxy. We're all cycnical and informed enough to buy Andrew Leonard's line yet still they 'get away with it'.

Governments are and will be responding to the recession in quasi-Friedmanesque ways with regulation being slashed (red tape must be bad right!), public spending likewise (quangos are useless and expensive right!) and asset sales (OS anyone?). A throwback to the ways of that mad scientist 'Thatch'. No right thinking chemist would carry on randomly adding one complex substance to another and not be expected to observe and measure the consequences. Yet we blithely sit by and let big business do this in the 'interests', in the case of GMOs, of the worlds poor farmers. We know their first duty is to their shareholders so those of the farmers are bogus in the first place.

I like a good simple cocktail, a margharita or a caparinha perhaps, but any time spent following one of these with a variety of others is generally felt the next day. The trouble with GMOs is, its not the next day, the cocktail if felt forever. Ouch.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Outing the OS "policy options" 'consultation'

Apologies for so much grammar in the title but those of you who have been following this since November 17th will know exactly whence the implied skepticism comes.

In the intervening months you may have observed (as I have not been 'anon') various comments I have made to various posts and other blogs (I can't remember them all now so no links!) correcting factual errors and establishing a soap box of sorts from which to contrast and/or challenge in a "you can't prove that your emperor has any clothes" kind of way some of the statements, demands and assumptions of the 'georati' (?).

Now of course you may argue that I, on behalf of emapsite, have an agenda of my own, what with being an OS Premium Partner (that's value adding reseller) and all. You may be right and I am not going to be sharing corporate information here so you'll just have to speculate but on the whole you won't find me hiding behind some smoke-screen of nobility and social good. Actually, on the one hand I am 100% behind the release of data sets under some kind of OS Free in support of these kind of activities, mashups etc, unhindered by the derived data nonsense. On the other hand I give short shrift to a number of things:

- that data (in this context OS data) is 'expensive'
- that large scale geographic data has a high price elasticity of demand
- that there are businesses going out of business or not come into business because data is so 'expensive'

After all we're a commercial concern, employ people, pay tax etc in delivering services to our customers.

But in the wake of the ludicrously quick announcement on Monday, by the PM no less (in amongst the big stuff on the digital and information economies), to assorted digerati that a policy option had been worked out and that it included a "substantial package" of data under the OS Free banner, the 'community' (that is neo and paleo - the alleged will to stop this squabble in a tea cup expounded at fora such as AGI apparently forgotten in the rush to claim the leadership of this not so new zeitgeist) have been quick to cheer, deride and second guess various aspects of the forthcoming announcement.

Whoops, that is a long sentence......feel a rant coming on.....

Sage voices, false prophets, various trolls and those who you might think would know better have saddled their various donkeys. It's all so undignified! But then again dignity is hardly what you would ascribe to the decision (presumably taken by December 23rd when the consultation was released) to announce a preferred policy option just three, yes 3, days after the consultation closed, with barely time to download the PDFs, rip open the envelopes and digest the contents, let alone assimilate, evaluate, reflect, ponder, revisit etc the wisdom of the community (from end users to software sellers, integrators and resellers, competitors and contractors, fans and detractors, old business and new et al) and convey that in measured form up the chain of command in line with the standard consultation protocol, upto 87 additional days later. Yep, take it as read that industry submissions have received short, if any, shrift. Indecent cry some, stitch up others, foregone conclusion? Why did we all bother? Why indeed?

It was evident from fairly early on (and arguably from the way in which the 3 options were positioned) that CLG, Cabinet Office, LEK et al were 'hedging', looking at option 3 as a stepping stone to option 2 within an unspoken timeframe. It was also evident that the consultation would count for nothing given the hostage to fortune of the original announcement, unencumbered as it was (and is) by recognition of the legal OS operational framework.

You would think that such a well respected consultancy as LEK would diligently dissect the various strands available to them and the limited material in support of a given direction. Not the case here as any decent assessment of the available literature on the economics of geographic information reveals. Prof Nigel Shadbolt of this parish was quick to acknowledge in January in the wake of criticism of the assumptions of the so-called Cambridge Study that there was a need for greater research on this subject. The reason: Pollock and friends are entirely unchallenged on the evidence-free assumption that the demand for large scale data (i.e. OS MasterMap) is highly elastic and their numbers are repeated ad infinitum without question. I would not argue that such products are perfectly price inelastic but, as one of the few businesses with a decade of evidence to hand, I can with confidence say that those who 'need' large scale data need large scale data, not perhaps at any price but at just about any price short of going and collecting it themselves. That is one measure of the value of large scale data.

Picture the use cases:

- house extension requires planning application requires 'plan' - cost of plan from about £12.99 depending on supplier and area; cost of extension from about £15,000; benefit of extension from about £25,000. Mmmm, %age cost of essential, useful 'plan' - paltry.

- decent size urban regeneration (few 10s or even 100s of hectares) - cost of detailed digital mapping for use across the multiple companies involved? Maybe upto £3,000 or so; cost of development in the millions; benefit of redevelopment - economic and social - massive. Mmmm, %age cost of vital, core data - paltry again.

And now we have the claim that 'markups' are 'wrong'; watch out for 'profit is evil' or 'do no profit' branding on a search engine near you soon. First duty to shareholders and all that.....can't see costs to customers falling and of course out of profit do UK taxes come (if UK domiciled of course!).

And yet there are those claiming, even this week, that the private sector finds this data too 'expensive'. Our customers don't - they know the cost and risks of the alternatives and the benefit of instant availability. Have there been errors? Of course! Are transactional charges for B2C websites (those that want to use OS data) too high? Yes. Should the third sector have specific use rights and charging waivers - if the distinction of non-profits, charities etc was not so blurred, of course.

But all these bleeding hearts....get yourself a business case, really. And please don't say LBS or even LBMS or 'ad revenues' or 'donations', it don't wash. If the target ain't paying your bills, by whatever means, you're going to blame the one thing you knew the cost of? Tell that to your Board, sell the Maserati, whatever....too difficult, scapegoat required, doh. Different of course if costs were put up without warning or rationale.

I am mostly interested in large scale data (as is OS as it provides 80% of their revenues); in all the 'noise' it seems to have been overlooked that Free Our Data and almost everyone else concurs that this should not be in OS Free (they don't want option 2 either). In the clamour for 'free' the point has been lost - how is an inefficient organisation with an outdated mandate to be recreated for the 21st century as a streamlined entity with a tightly constrained public task that will deliver long term geoinformation integrity at a declining cost to users in real terms?

And another thing....next some will be claiming that other infrastructure should be run as a government asset and thus be free at the point of consumption. It was never thus, government always got receipts from nationalised industries, now utilities, charging to cover for delivery of the next unit and the one tomorrow and also for the unit in 30-50 years time, the maintenance, update, investment bearing considerable parallels, albeit at a much smaller scale, with databases. I worked in Mongolia and saw and benefited from (when working) the centralised free hot air heating systems - they're great - but are we to truly anticipate and relish a return to nationalised this and that?

btw, anyone can be an OS 'partner', there being no protection per se and the costs, like 'em or not, are transparent, making a cost base and business model 'easy'.

Of course OS has done stuff it would have been wiser not to down the years (we've been quick to tell them, they're no angels) and could have moved more quickly in a number of areas - sorting out derived data, consolidated consumer licensing and pricing, OS Free, click use licensing, cutting costs, not competing with the private sector being notable - but have you tried dealing with the others? And as I say it isn't that hard to change the cost structure and mandate and resolve these issues. This consultation is the opportunity to do just that but has signally failed to identify, let alone drill down into and resolve, these fundamental issues. Opportunity missed #FAIL.

On competing with its channel.....OS has continually moved up the value chain over the last decade and there are signals already that concerns over short term revenue 'hits' on the back of this consultation are contributing to more of the same, and at significant cost (£10m), at a time when OS should be looking at slashing its cost structure.

I've always been for the broader social good and OS Boundary Line (everything from parishes and wards to euro zones), Code Point (that's postcodes, a right royal (ha) pain), addressing and various gazetteers should be unleashed on the third sector, charity, mashup, academic, bedroom hacker and any other kind of user to produce stuff and present stuff (that be Gary's secret sauce) to people that wish to 'consume' it and the benefits it confers. emapsite would benefit too. These are the framework geographies by which most public data (data.gov.uk and all that) can be assembled, aggregated, analysed and visualised. And what is used for that visualisation? Well, it ain't OS mapping (that's the 1:25 000 scale Explorer and 1:50 000 scale Landranger equivalents) - too dense and rich cartographically to provide a useful contextual backdrop for most applications (as the low take up of OS's own OpenSpace service kind of demonstrates) - most are using OpenStreetMap (OSM) (and should be eternally grateful to SteveC and all the 'VGIers') for its clean visual style, flexibility (if you have the inclination), spherical global projection (another issue for another time!) and licensing or GYM.

And please please, mashup some social and economic value and not the high profile kind of guff that has been first out the traps - ASBOrometer anyone, has anyone actually looked at that and been prepared to make a genuine decision about anything and I mean anything at all; safer cycling anyone, you'll know where I am on that already; potholes, ditto. Me? There be value in them thar data hills.....

Did I mention the third sector? I did? Diversion? OK! Unrehearsed argument this.....Bit like PPP and PFI only with a nobler defence, they've become a critical part of the service delivery fabric in our transformed nation state, sucking taxes directly from government and indirectly from the public at large (charity and donations as indirect broadly regressive taxation anyone - you know about the U-shaped charitable giving profile of course - for another time perhaps), providing fertile ground for parallel commercial and lobbying activity and duplicating existing institutional infrastructures. On the latter, I worked in 'development' through the late 80s and most of the 90s and have first hand experience both of the awesome, wonderful work of the likes of SCF, MSF, WaterAid et al on the one hand and the staggering costs of administering both these and especially the supra-agencies such as the UN (where anything up to 84% of receipts go on admin) on the other. BandAid set out to demonstrate among other things, and by most measures successfully, that it needn't be so but they remain the exception rather than the rule at that scale though more of a model at the micro voluntary and community scale. Those that come in their wake are these days more adroit at leveraging the 'third sector' appellation in different ways - an exemplar of 'freemium' for some and a Trojan horse to others. I have witnessed at first hand the credibility from that association, annointed by piety, used as a tool to convey entirely inaccurate 'facts' to duped credulous high level audiences. Chatham House rules preclude further revelations but for want of a good soundbite it pays to do your research.

For some reason the city of Tempe (AZ) just popped into my head as an exemplar (if I recall correctly) of what goes wrong and what costs there are to the dilution of quality (and hence, as night follows day, trust) in large scale mapping. I believe there are now 10 or more large scale vertical market or use case specific data sets for this one small city, most of which contain the same data but none of whoch have been collected to a common standard. It may look good in GDP terms with lots of declared economic activity but it sure as hell ain't efficient or re-usable or linked (or even accessible). Rumour has it that there are those in the crowd at WhereCampEU last week (sorry, had to duck out but Justin, Ian and Richard all put in appearances) who have suddenly woken up to the idea that you can't have two definitive large scale maps.....

Which in a very roundabout way brings me to what happens next....there are plenty of factors that could inform the outcome.....

- the idea that the public sector should pay more (a small part of option 3) is naturally laughable; as is giving away large scale data or nothing changing (options 2 and 1 respectively).

- the fact that prices have gone down more than 30% in real terms in recent years (with no significant increase in uptake) has for no apparent reason been ignored, though it disproves the case for option 2.

- that the thriving community of businesses in the sector (that employ upwards of 10,000 people (yes, employ, that's taxes folks, at both ends) according to the AGI) has received scant attention - why is that when the information economy is our future?

- the fact that beneficiaries of collective purchase agreements are saddled with unworkable derived data regulations is as sorely overlooked as the fact that so little is done with the data these organisations actually pay for (all options).

- the myth that LGA members contribute data to the OS for free that is then licensed back to them for a fee; the CODES process has been quietly dropped owing to the need, following field trials, for OS to go and resurvey the as-built real world features for which LAs provide pre-built/planned information.

- the fact that the public task for OS and the parallel opportunity to re-cast OS in a different mould while retaining its self-financing integrity in difficult economic times (when the alleged benefit to the Treasury through increased tax take from start ups and non-dom companies is as comical as it is scary) received little or no attention except from respondents (most of whom made this point in some form, all of whom are set to be ignored).

...but they (and others) won't - if I were a gambling man I would even bet that most of these are news to CLG.

So, having ruled out large scale data and raster backdrops and ruled in all that reference data, where exactly is the squabble? Is there even one! We'll know soon enough as the various models are run, fiefdoms are fought over, sacrifices and accommodations made, budgets re-run in time for All Fools Day.

Ian Austin, MP is Minister of State for OS at CLG and a very close ally of the PMs. With the latter in thrall to TBL (to the tune of £30m - wonder where that Institute will be - in one of those closed down University departments or MIT perhaps?) the (rest of the) money has to be on an OS Free that satisfies a small coterie of vocal technocrats while leaving a far larger swathe of often innovative, risk taking, entrepeneurial anything-but-Cnuts with proven markets and business models to re-think their propositions. It's one thing to fail to invest in tools and technologies to more effectively meet new challenges, it's another to have your business model overturned by a competitor but that is not the case with government edict.

Hey, life ain't fair, geddoverit, this is a slow train that has been a long time coming (and may take a while to pass)....best be on the side of the angels (and not Harry Angel - you may have to look up the reference and decide who is who too) and may it be profitable and popular...

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Sport Relief 3 Mile boy

Well, technically, boy 2 (aged 9) and my better half. Rather a last minute decision (last week) saw the rapid creation of a team (of 2) - http://www.mysportrelief.com/jedstars?SID=118239
and a modest fund raising target. Delighted and grateful for the immediate response.

And today was the day, at 1030am allegedly - I say allegedly....the school car park was home to what appeared to be an amateur motorcycle display team; happilty we did have the right day, just the letter and original website time had been wrong and the whole thing was scheduled for 3pm.
Not content with running 3 miles later boy 2 then played football and tennis for over an hour. Back at the school and self consciousness took over during the 'warm up'. But come the off and boy 2 was running 4th of some 200 souls after the first 400m as they left tarmac for grass and mud. Each circuit a mile with many finishing after one circuit boy 2 strode on, revivified after 2 miles, as the picture shows,


to finish the 3 miles just inside 26 minutes and in the top 10. A fantastic effort you'll agree (obviously doesn't burn it all up in defence on a saturday!).

And the reason I tell you this? You will most likely have got here from the link in the email seeking further sponsors - so a short tale of the day a a quid pro quo. And a reminder of the link...
http://www.mysportrelief.com/jedstars?SID=118239

Anything you can give greatly appreciated....

Did I mention...the better half came in on 30 minutes - bravo!

Friday, 12 March 2010

What the kids do with your iphone

Had the iphone a month now and am a total convert - how can anything else be so difficult and lacking in intuition!? Still not done much in the way of Apps for myself - SnowReport, WindGuru, TideApp, GPSLite, Ship Finder, Eurosport, Palringo, Twitterific, Skype, Trainline, TubeMap, Tube Status and mashup ASBOromoter demonstrating a combonation of interests if nothing else. On that note, what is the excitement with the ASBO thingy? As with the bike mashup it begs the asking of more, serious questions than it can hope to answer. Perhaps that is the point, go and look at it yourself, examine the metadata (its not s**t by the way, it is just worthy and dull and, per a discussion of the use of digital signatures, vital to provenance, confidence, trust, re-use etc). All for that but in the meantime it certainly doesn't provide social value or as the contrarians might have it, create/perpetuate ghettoes.

Anyway, back to the iphone.....yes, I have a password, no the boys don't know it but they do ask me to enter it for anything they find of interest. Compared to the inanities of YouTube and the like (not to mention the language in the comments) and the hassle of multiple logins (roll on a laptop/netbook for each of us) vs. appropriate cross-user content filters the App Store offers a veritable treasure trove of 'safe' little, well, "apps".

With exactly no tuition they have installed all manner of mostly smile making stuff....starting with a local radio station and including:
Paper Toss
Imbecile Test
Bubble Wrap
Impossible
iMarioLite
JellyCar
You vs Wall
BigRedBtnFree
kinetic
iPint
Toobz-Free
Mood Pad
Glow Hockey
Dots
Bump
Red Ball
Traffic Rush
Waterslide
Shrek Kart
Shotgun Free
Finger Sprint
Aqua Moto
Labyrinthe
SKiJump Lite
Shaker
Jurasic
Angry Birds
CatchTheEgg
Sling Cowboy
SpotDiffFree
Lego Photo
Soosiz Lite
Icy Escort
Cluck It! Lite
Fish Frenzy
SnowBalls
Drum Kit Lite
Foghorn!
MyGuitar
Harmonica
Dog Piano Jr
JellyfishJam
Glow STick Free
Buzzer!
Framed Lite
Cat Piano Jr
Bouncedown
TableTennis
Spikey Lite
Hamburgers
Electroracer
Maze
Mazes
SnailMail Lite

Blimey. Go on, you know you want to...