Archive for February, 2010

The seamy side of social networking

February 23, 2010

There’s an interesting piece in today’s Times (a piece which I first came across by the rather archaic method of reading the newspaper while drinking a cup of coffee) about chatroulette – a site which, to put it coyly, you probably wouldn’t surf without being sure of who might be looking over your shoulder.  In general I agree with Sathnam Sanghera’s argument: social networking has become respectable and chatroulette isn’t.  But you could possibly make the oppposite argument, that chatroulette might succeed, albeit catering for a niche audience, because it provides something anarchic and juvenile for a group who have been left behind by other social networking sites.

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Living the case study

February 23, 2010

After a lot of prevarication, I’ve finally got round to replacing my old Nokia mobile phone with – a new Nokia mobile phone.  And this isn’t a phone developed out of Nokia’s work on personal organisers etc; it’s still a phone, and its main functions are still to handle phone calls and text messages.  So my experience is consistent with my ideas about how different brands of smartphone are perceived – that Nokia remains the brand for people who want to use it as a phone.

It is slimmer than its predecessor.  If Nokia achieved success by replacing phones that looked like bricks with phones that looked like chocolate bars, this new phone has more of the form of an elongated Bahlsen biscuit.  And it does have much better web browsing than the very rudimentary facilities that I had before – good enough that one day I will try and sync it with my email.  Which leads me to one slight concern, that I might have chosen the phone that’s right for my pattern of use over the last couple of years, and that I might want something different in the future as more mobile services become available.

It also comes with maps on a disc, and (though I haven’t yet learned how to use it) built in satellite navigation.  So it fits a point that I make when using satnav as a case study of the effect of a disruptive technology – that sat nav systems may well be made obsolete soon by applications on smart phones

Getting writing

February 23, 2010

This is the time of year when undergraduate students, in the institution where I work at least, are writing their final year dissertations.  I’ve had conversations with several of them about the importance of getting things down on paper (partly because it’s something I don’t find easy myself) and of ‘writing through’ stages where you find it difficult to write anything that makes sense.  Occasionally I suggest that students should look at the techniques that professional writers use to keep going, and this week the Guardian has helpfully published a range of tips from the famous and successful.

Some of them, of course, are specific either to fiction or at least to published books – Roddy Doyle’s advice not to search Amazon for the book you haven’t written yet is rather charming.  But others do work for all forms of writing.  I particularly commend the first few bullet points from Neil Gaiman (starting with write/put one word after another) as being relevant to every form of writing

Ocado on the stock market?

February 11, 2010

The Financial Times reports that Ocado is about to make moves towards an initial public offering of its shares – a sign that this model of online retailing is approaching maturity even if their profitability is still, at best, marginal.  In fact the most telling statistic is towards the bottom of this Sunday Times article  – that the average Ocado order is £110.  That’s a good-sized supermarket order and keeping this figure up must be an important part of their business model.

The open source creation of knowledge

February 11, 2010

One particular reason that knowledge management is still relevant is the value of web 2 tools for building up knowledge – especially blogs and wikis which can be used as tools for constructing knowledge collectively.  Because they use tagging – a practical example of ‘data about data’ which is valuable given how intricate knowledge can be – they provide tools which help readers to navigate knowledge.  Moreover because they invite comments and, in the case of a wiki, edits from readers, they are an example of how the open source approach can be applied to collecting and disseminating knowledge.

Knowledge and critiques of knowledge

February 11, 2010

Knowledge management sprung on the world of business some time around the mid 1990s – knowledge itself wasn’t a new concept but, as IT became cheaper and more pervasive a lot of organisations realised that they were in possession of a lot of information, but were struggling to extract useful knowledge from it.  There was also a move to establish that knowledge wasn’t just about using the technology – hence the popularity and relevance of the work of Thomas Davenport and Dorothy Leonard, both of whom wrote books on knowledge management which were published in around 1995, and a realisation of the value of tacit knowledge, a concept that had been discussed and refined by Michael Polanyi earlier in the twentieth century, but was really brought to bear on business through the analysis by Ikujiro Nonaka and Hirotaka Takeuchi of the factors making Japanese businesses successful.

Much as this is still relevant to business, it’s become tempting to see knowledge management as a late 1990s – early 2000s concept.  Personally I think that’s a pity, because the factors that led to knowledge management being important still apply and, if anything, tacit knowledge in particular is an even more important business resource than it was ten years ago.  So I was interested to read this defence of the extracting knowledge from data by Patrick Lambe, and related to it this critique in one of the Harvard Business Review blogs.  Some context: DIKW refers to data/information/knowledge/wisdom and SECI to socialisation/internalisation/combination/externalisation (the cycle of tacit and explicit knowledge creation identified by Nonaka and Takeuchi).  Dave Snowden is the man behind cognitive edge and an expert on narrative approaches in organisations.

One particular quote in the HBR blog concerns me: discussing the DIKW ladder it says that ‘its real problem [is]… its implication that knowledge derives from filtering information’.  That seems a bit assumption, and I don’t think would be my assumption.  Knowledge is differentiated from information through being relevant over time, where information tends to be transient, and because of that tacit dimension.   It’s often derived from information but certainly not usually created by filtering it.  It’s consistent with Patrick Lambe’s view that there is typically more knowledge around than information.

Michael Dell’s latest acquisition

February 8, 2010

I was intrigued to read last week about Michael Dell acquiring an archive of pictures from the famous Magnum photographic cooperative – at first I wondered whether there was any synergy between Magnum and Dell’s business model, but it turns out that this is really a philanthropic move by Michael Dell’s investment company.

Michael Dell is 44,which is the sort of age where many men are tempted to spend money on something a little frivolous – if this is indeed a forty-something vanity purchase, it’s a rather wonderful one and it’s good to see that the photos are to be loaned to the University of Texas for the time being at least

The BBC virtual revolution

February 4, 2010

The BBC is running a series of four TV programmes on the Virtual Revolution right now.  I caught up with the first episode over the last couple of days (using I-player, of course) and rather enjoyed it.  It opens with presenter Aleks Krotoski, and Tim Berners-Lee, in Ghana promoting the benefits of the Internet in Africa, and it places a strong emphasis on the Internet’s origins and potential as a tool for making resources available to everybody – even if on occasions it’s a bit over-ready to portray a battle between ‘goodies’ who favour free information, and ‘baddies’ who expect everything to be paid for…

Universal access and MMR

February 4, 2010

The controversy about the MMR vaccine surfaced again in the news last week – it occured to me that this is related to universal access, in that a considerable volume of medical writing is now available to anybody with a web browser, including papers that were initially written for a specialist audience.  Dr Andrew Wakefield’s original paper in the Lancet (whatever the ethical issues surrounding the data) was cautious in making any claims, and simply highlighted a possible area for further research.   It was seized upon by campaigners, some of them opposed to any sort of vaccination, in a way that illustrates the danger of reading a scientific document out of context.  Perhaps this should be an element of information literacy: if you are proficient at handling information from the Internet, you need to understand your own limitations, and to recognise when you would benefit from somebody with specific expertise who could help to interpret this information.  Richard Horton, editor of the Lancet, has written about the subject at some length ( he was interviewed by the Times in 2004 and this gives some insight into his views) and raised some significant issues about the public understanding of science.

I should point out that personally I’m strongly in favour of vaccination, although that isn’t the point of this blog post.

At the end of the BBC piece there’s a suggestion that the controversy might now disappear.  This piece from the British Medical Journal is a reminder that opponents to vaccination have been around for a long time and that in some ways the issues haven’t changed.

Web 2 in Haiti

February 2, 2010

Amid the horror that’s been unfolding in Haiti since the earthquake there have been some interesting uses of new technology.  My children’s school is raising money for shelterboxes – boxes containing tents, blankets, tools and so on – and the charity that assembles these boxes has embedded a Google map in their website to help track the boxes.