Attracting readers

Elizabeth Spayd, the new Public Editor at The New York Times has written her first column. The previous public editor Margaret Sullivan departed recently for the Washington Post.

In her first column, Spayd grapples with the core issue of attracting readers and the changing nature of the audience:

What would prove more fruitful is for newsrooms to treat their audience like people with crucial information to convey — preferences, habits and shifting ways of consuming information. What do they like about what we do and how we do it? What do they want done differently? What do they turn to other sites for?

Had we been listening more carefully and sooner, we would have known that our readers were using their phones for news while we were focused on monitors. And spending hours on social platforms before we had staffed “audience teams” to attract them. Or beginning to block ads while we were deploying “pop-ups” that took over user screens.

It’s an interesting piece and the above quote sums up precisely where the blogging world was a decade ago. Indeed the core philosophy of blogging was the idea of being closer to your readers, learning from them, being corrected by them, and building loyalty and relationship with your audience.

It is good to see news organisations catching up with this type of philosophy, but why has it taken so long?

Thoughts on Brexit

It’s now 2,840 days since Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, and we are still living in the crisis wrought on the global economy. It is probably widely perceived that 2008 is a long time ago, that we’ve moved on with our lives, that the crisis is in the past, that unemployment is falling and the situation has stabilised. But it has not. We are still in the financial crisis.

Humans tend not to perceive the world in blocks of 5 or 10 years, we simply continue to live, day to day, week to week and month to month. But we are all inside the train crash – moving in slow motion – that started in 2007 and continues today. How we reacted to the crash, and how our governments decided to react, have brought us to this point – for good or ill. And unfortunately things don’t look good.

There is a very serious problem becoming increasingly evident in open democracies globally. I don’t where this path brings us, but it won’t be pretty. By nature I am an optimist – but I have to look at the reality I see around me. I am now deeply pessimistic about where the world – and in particular Western democracy – is headed.

Brexit is the latest example. I am on the fence about the European project overall. I think on balance the project has been a good thing for a continent ravaged by war – it brought about stability, trade and helped bring about prosperity. But somewhere along the way things went wrong. I voted to reject both the Nice and Lisbon treaties – not because I’m particularly against the European Union – but because I felt we were moving too fast for an integration that was either unnecessary, or even if it was necessary, was not supported by swathes of the European population (who also have genuine concerns about just how accountable the EU institutions are to its people).

My view during Lisbon I in Ireland would have been: there is no need to move towards closer union – the union as it stood was close enough – and that to move closer was an exercise in hubris – particularly after the French rejected the European constitution. However the European institutions kept pushing, so we voted again.

But events have moved on quite a bit since we voted in Lisbon II in 2009. In my view the project that started with the Treaty of Paris in 1951 is now over – and we are merely now living through its eventual demise. There are a number of reasons why I believe this to be case:

1) The end of the idealistic post-war European project started with the design of the euro. It was constructed wrongly not through malice, but through incompetence (and perhaps hubris again). When the crisis began in Europe – mainly in the poorer peripheral countries or PIIGS – it became clear that the the entire project was in trouble. And a union founded on solidarity became a union focussed on punishment. Greece, Ireland, Portugal, and to a lesser extent Italy and Spain, were to be punished for the profligacy of their banks – despite the equal involvement of German and British banks in the self-same profligacy.

2) The treatment of Greece, through multiple so-called bailouts, while remaining an EU member was contemptuous. Instead of treating a country as a fellow member in need of support, Germany treated it as a country to be reprimanded and scolded. How Greek people, my fellow EU citizens, were portrayed by my own media, or by German and British media, was frankly terrible.

3) The treatment of my own country, Ireland, was one of forcing us into a path of austerity and cuts, when the opposite could and probably should have been pursued. The IMF seemed to favour the policy, but then backtracked.

4) The treatment of Cyprus, like Greece, was embarrassing. Again, a union built on solidarity felt that punishment and austerity were a better course of action. There would be little or no sharing of the burden – because the institutions of the Union felt they were without responsibility for the crisis.

5) Brexit. Brexit is a symptom of the greater economic malaise, and the growth of inequality. It was more a protest vote against austerity than it was a protest against un-elected EU officials. People are still living in the depths of the crisis that started in 2008, and immigration is an easy device to use to blame “others” on the problem, rather than blaming the actual cause – many of the ideologies promoted by the very people campaigning to leave the EU.

Unfortunately, we are already on the slope to European disintegration and it is already slippery. Western democracies are moving to the right because of the financial crisis we are still in; because of the greater inequality it has created and because of the austerity imposed on vast numbers of people. Immigration, or anti-immigration are merely symptoms of that discontent. When most people are doing ok, immigration is not an issue. But most people are not doing ok.

We must ask: where does this all end? What does the world look like in 2030? Where has greater inequality and disintegration led Europe before? History has a way of repeating itself.

It is deeply unfortunate that the generation who knows what war is like is disappearing entirely just as we revert to a type of politics we haven’t seen for two generations – and an entire generation alive today have no frame of reference for what war or extremism looks like. As humans we forget all too easily.

I can hear people reading this already thinking “war?! What is this person smoking?”. And I sympathise with the view. But when I look at this through the lens of history, I see conflagration as one eventual possibility that cannot be discounted easily. If we project out by 10 to 15 years, what are the possible futures? If, as I argue, we are at the beginning of the end of the post-war project, and if Trumpism is alive and well in the US (whether he wins or not), and if European countries increasingly move to the right due to real or perceived economic stagnation or depression – then where does that bring us?

The risks for the future are, I believe, great.

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Addendum:

I strongly suggest taking 5 hours out of your schedule and watching The Death of Yugoslavia.

Elon Musk’s sleight of hand

[cross posted from Medium].

Like many people, I’m a fan of Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, SpaceX and Chairman of Solar City. So much so that I’m nerdy enough to listen to the quarterly conference calls of Tesla, and keep a close eye on the movements of each company.

Watching Tesla launches, like the recent Model X and Powerwall announcements, all remind me of watching Apple and Steve Jobs product launches back when it was still considered fanboy(ish), and not a pre-requisite for people working in tech or journalism (ie anytime pre iPhone in 2007).

Musk’s presentation style is not as polished as a Jobs show — but he manages to pull it off in a slightly awkward, if endearing, manner.

Indeed, like back then with Jobs, today many people have no idea who Musk is — he has yet to meet the Jobs levels of fame.

However, beneath some of the recent announcements are I believe some more fundamental things at work. Clearly everything I write is only as an interested observer, and is certainly not based on any fundamental research. I’m as in the dark as everyone else about Musk’s future intentions — but I do enjoy exercising my brain on what’s possible or probable.

Before we begin, keep in mind throughout Tesla’s stated goal: “To accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable transport.” It’s not to make the coolest looking electric cars.

This week Musk launched the long awaited and much delayed Model X — the SUV followup to the incredibly well reviewed Model S sedan. But during the show, Musk almost downplayed features of the Model X that, within the right circumstances, are in my view nothing short of revolutionary. Some features already exist in the Model S — but I believe this new combination is a step in a new direction.

Let’s start with the first example.

A dozen minutes into the launch of Model X, Musk says

“So let’s move on to the car itself. What’s cool and fun about the car? Doors & Windows. So. You’re obviously familiar with the Falcon Wing door. What we also have is an Auto Presenting front door. So what it will do, it will triangulate my position and detect that I am moving towards the front door. It will open the front door. Without me touching anything. I will sit down, and it will close the door. Like an invisible chauffeur. (He then laughs to himself in the car)

It’s a cool and fun feature. But was it a feature added to the car because it was cool and fun? It seems like quite a bit of effort just so a human doesn’t have to touch the handle of a door and close it after them. It’s like a first world problem of first world problems.

And it’s well beyond “fun” when you’re building any expensive complex device such as the X — which Musk has previously described as “the most difficult car in the world to build”.

But onto to the second example.

Later in the presentation Musk focuses audiences on how the Falcon Wing doors are a wonderful innovation and “look cool”. But the main crux of this innovation, Musk appears to argue, is the ability for parents to get full advantage of the second and third rows of the Model X — without the discomfort of “cantilevering” themselves and their kids seats as they would with normal SUVs.

Also during this demonstration (left), Musk “presses the button” (he actually says those words) so that the second row seats move themselves forward electronically. He then gets in the third row, to demonstrate the space and ease of ingress.

I’m now asking myself a number of questions during this demo — which only grow when Musk moves on to talk about the Falcon doors.

Which leads us to example number three.

In the next set piece, he shows how easy it is to get into the car via the Falcon Doors when two other vehicles are parked directly alongside the X. Ostensibly, the rationale for this demonstration was again the scenario of perhaps parents at a shopping mall, trying to manage their shopping and their kids — and some rude people parking beside you. The Falcon Wing doors sense the proximity of the nearby cars, and still open with ease, again allowing for ease of ingress for humans.

Which brings us to example number four:

Musk, almost in passing, mentions the extra room around the rear seating area. Here he outlines how wonderful this feature is:

“Probably the best-looking second seat — if that’s a superlative — ever. But it actually provides more functionality because you have a flat floor and you can stow something. So if you’ve got a backpack, or a laptop, or a handbag you can stow that under the seat, instead of having it at your feet. So it actually provides utility as well as aesthetics.”

Except that later in the presentation, Musk and his team demonstrate the enormous overall storage capacity of the X — so I’m left wondering why emphasise the extra stowing feature under the rear seats?

Lastly is a feature that wasn’t actually presented — but is a feature still under development — the “snake”. This was demoed plugging into a Model S earlier this year, but will clearly be compatible with the Model X too, whenever it becomes available. Essentially it is a charger for the car that recognises when a vehicle is present and plugs itself in, without the drivers having to get out and do it themselves.

But when I pull these five things together I don’t see features that are being built or added because they are “fun”, or because they are designed for frustrated parents in shopping malls with more luggage than any family in the history of the world. How much did each of these features cost in both time and money for Tesla? I wonder.

No. None of these features have anything to do with building conveniences for humans too lazy to open doors with their hands, or indeed for parents squeezing between cars.

They were built for something else — and this is Musk’s sleight of hand.

All of these feature were built for one reason — a self driving future combined with an entire self-driving mobility platform. The Model X was built to be either the ultimate self-driving taxi, or the ultimate human/self-driving rental car — or both. Or as Musk almost laughingly hinted during the presentation — an invisible chauffeur will be doing all the work.

1. A front door that opens when you approach it and closes itself when you get in — because it’s fun? No. A self-driving car that arrives to collect you and opens its doors when it detects your proximity based on your watch/mobile device nearby (plus the sensors).

2. Electronic seats that move forward to make the lives of parents easier at the touch of a button? No. A software update will allow the seats to configure themselves for passengers arriving to get into a car where the doors open themselves (Uber – but you tell it how many people and the car gets ready for the group).

3. Ease of ingress and egress for humans in the Model X because of Falcon Doors? No. The doors don’t exist for frustrated parents — they’re doors designed for a self-driving taxi/rental mobility platform.

4. More storage under the rear seats because you need more of it, and because you can (down to the space that electric cars give you)? Yes. But when Musk uses the word “stow” I think airline. And when I think airline I think passengers. And when I think Model X I think taxi — with lots of room for your bags — with no driver in the front seat.

5. A snake that extends to charge your car because it saves your lazy ass from having to get out and plug it in yourself? Yes, but if the car is driving itself it’s going to have to be able to reverse into a station and commence charging — without the presence of a human.

If I’m correct — and I think I am — the future for Model X owners won’t involve them being the only drivers of their own cars. It will involve them renting out their cars to everyone else for a price — with Tesla taking a cut — and the car driving itself. As Musk so often says, cars spend most of their productive lives sitting unused in people’s driveways. Which is crazy for such an expensive piece of hardware.

Model X will be a self-driving car with doors that open when you approach, seats that configure for the number of passengers who can then easily ingress and egress through Falcon doors, with lots of in-car stowage available, that runs on batteries in the floor charged by solar fuelled battery packs at supercharger stations (and elsewhere).

How will Uber, Hailo, Hertz, Avis, Enterprise, Budget et al compete with this? It’s not exactly clear to me. All of those firms rely on fossil-fuelled cars and humans to function. Both involve high costs (financially and environmentally).

Tesla vehicles run (or will ultimately run) on freely available solar energy — for no charge to its owners at supercharging stations.

And one has to imagine that the Model X has much if not all of the hardware necessary that — should a certain over-the-air update arrive at some point in the future — then the thing will just drive itself around.

I’m not the first to speculate on what might be called “Tesla Mobility”. Adam Jonas at Morgan Stanley recently asked Musk directly during a conference call exactly this type of question. Musk decided it was best not to comment. And this was before we saw the Model X launch.

And remember: “To accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable transport.” Yup, that’s what Tesla Mobility would be, if Tesla can pull it off.

At the very least, the next five years (not the next ten, this will happen faster than we think), will be very interesting.

(Disclosure: I’m a *very* small shareholder in Tesla and Solar City. I’m the founder over at Vizlegal (in Ireland!) where we’re building a global API for law — a sorely needed thing if you want autonomous machines to know what human laws to obey (and even a Musk Mars colony needs laws too). I’m on Twitter if you have any questions!)

Anglo – requesting information

[posted to thestory.ie]

Readers will be aware that Anglo Irish Bank was nationalised in January 2009. This came after the bank guarantee scheme of September/October 2009. Anglo became a prescribed body under the Ethics in Public Office Act last summer, which was expanded through a statutory instrument in February 2010 to cover many subsidiaries of the bank.

However, Anglo has not become a prescribed body under the Freedom of Information Act 1997/2003. This would require the signature of Finance Minister, Brian Lenihan. Given the sheer volumes of public money already given to the bank, and the volumes of public money due to be given, it is outrageous that the public has no recourse to information as to how this money is being spent. We cannot quantify expenditure by the bank, nor has the Government made any effort to inform the public about how much public money has been given to the banks, and how it is exactly spent.

I gave a great deal of thought to this problem over the last number of months, and decided on a course of action that will be unknown to many. I have decided to publicise this process in the hope that others will follow. We have a right to know what is going on. As a result I started a process that I believe is the most significant and important request for information we have sent to date.

Continue reading “Anglo – requesting information”

Department expense database

[Crossposted to thestory.ie]

Readers may recall a blog post I wrote back in December detailing my dealings with the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism (DAST). After gleaning information from the footers of Ken Foxe’s FOIs concerning John O’Donoghue, I established that the Department was using Oracle iExpense software to store expenses information.

I wrote an FOI request in October asking for a ‘datadump’, of the entire database since inception (in other words, a copy of the database). The Department refused both the original request and the appeal for internal review (conducted by a more senior official in the Department).

In January I appealed the decision to the Office of the Information Commissioner. The request, internal review and appeal have cost a combined €240 (kindly made available by you, the public).

The Appeal letter to the Information Commissioner

Today I am pleased to say that I have reached a settlement with the Department, brokered by the Office of the Information Commissioner. The Department have agreed to release almost the entire database, with some elements removed. This is not a formal decision of the Commissioner, but is instead a settling of the issue. This just means that a formal OIC Decision was not required as the two parties reached an agreement.

The settlement is this: the entire expenses database of the Department, to include the follow expenses data headings:

Description, Grade, Full Name, Claim, Date, Purpose, Status, Total Claimed, Distribution Line Number, Start Date, Expense Type, Euro Line Amount, Currency Code, Currency Rate, Amount Quantity Unit, Rate Net Total, (EUR) Payment Date, Withholding Amount Invoice, Amount, Amount Paid.

Cost Centre numbers, employee cost centre numbers, named approvers and justification fields have been removed. There are also some removals from other fields which is either considered personal information or information obtained in confidence. These removals do not mean the information is redacted per se, it just means that in order to get the data, I agreed to remove certain columns in order to expedite the process. It does not preclude me from seeking the justification field, for example, in the future.

The data contains €774,882.29 of expense claims by named civil servants over a five year period (2005 to 2009 inclusive). The amount involved might appear relatively small, but it is the quality of the data that is more significant.

I cannot overstate the importance of the release of this data, and there are a number of reasons why this is the case.

Firstly, it sets an important precedent in terms of what information can be obtained from public bodies. In their refusals to release this data, the Department cited three sections of the Act which they felt exempted them from releasing it. The OIC felt differently. While not a formal decision of the OIC, a settlement was justified in this case as the Department were amenable to releasing the majority of the data sought. Decisions can take far longer to get (up to two years), so I felt that on balance the offered information in the settlement was acceptable.

Second, are the broader implications.

Following this settlement with DAST, I have started the process of requesting similar expenses data from the Department of Agriculture and Food, the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, the Department of Community Rural & Gaeltacht Affairs, the Department of Defence, the Department of Education and Science, the Department of the Taoiseach, the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission, the Department of Justice Equality and Law Reform, the Courts Service, the Industrial Development Authority, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, the Department of the Environment Heritage and Local Government, the Department of Finance, the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Department of Health and Children, the Department of Social and Family Affairs, the Department of Transport, the Health Service Executive, the Revenue Commissioners, FÁS and Enterprise Ireland.

I believe the combined expenses data for these (and other) bodies will run to tens, if not hundreds of millions of euro.

But perhaps most critical is this: I sought the data not as a journalist looking for a scoop, not as a member of the public with an axe to grind, but as a transparency advocate only interested in the public interest. By publishing this, and coming data, I believe the public is served by a more open and accountable State – where data related to how some public monies are spent is no longer hidden, but is in full view. Transparency keeps the system honest.

I should also make clear that publishing this data is not an attempt to embarrass any one person, nor does it form the basis of any claim that somehow there was something unjustified about any expense claimed by civil servants. It is simply an exercise in transparency, and no more.

And I will leave readers with one question.

If I am getting this data and intend publishing it in its entirety online for the public to see, what is stopping the Government from doing the same, proactively, without question, and as a matter of course?

In the end, sunlight benefits us all.

The dataset, presented as is (and containing some macros):

Department of Arts, Sport & Tourism expenses database

Jekyll & Hyde

Our esteemed Senators have been at it again. Hold onto your hats. Senator Donie Cassidy kicked it off:

Donie Cassidy (Fianna Fail): Senators Fitzgerald, Coghlan, Quinn and Norris congratulated the Jekyll and Hyde foundation for the wonderful work it is doing. Senator Fitzgerald outlined the huge difference between the cost of the services being provided by the foundation and those provided by the HSE. It is something we must examine—–

Frances Fitzgerald (Fine Gael): It is the Jack and Jill Children’s Foundation.

Dominic Hannigan (Labour): Jekyll and Hyde is something different.

Donie Cassidy (Fianna Fail): My apologies. It is the Jack and Jill Children’s Foundation….

Your tax euros hard at work there.

Cowen to appear for bank inquiry?

You would have to wonder whether you could call the proposal for a bank inquiry an ‘inquiry’ at all. It certainly does not appear to have much in the way of grilling the people who caused the mess, or of dealing with the decisions post September 2008, all of which were the critical ones.

I made the point earlier to Senator Dan Boyle (who is said to have offered his resignation over the inquiry). I tweeted to him: “…forgive my cynicism then. Will I see TV pictures of our leaders for the past 12 years being held to account for their decisions?”

To which he replied:

boyle

Brian Cowen, at least, is a start. But Bertie Ahern, being the Taoiseach who oversaw the entire period would be another must see. And Messrs McCreevy (Finance), Cullen, Dempsey, Roche and Gormley (Environment) would be others. As I said to Mr Boyle, accountability behind closed doors is not accountability. Accountability must be seen to be done, a bit like justice. Getting a report at the end of a process is not enough.

But then accountability seems to be a rather novel concept to most of our politicians.

[cross posted to thestory.ie]