Archive for October, 2012

Healing technologies

October 31, 2012

This BBC piece highlights an interesting area where technological innovation has been inspired by the study of biological system, and where new technology might progress in unexpected directions.  Given the number of people I see using smartphones with visibly damaged, but still functional, screens I think the self-repairing touch screen is a particularly attractice development


Waterstones, Amazon, and synergies.

October 25, 2012

There’s been some news coverage this week of the decision by Waterstones, who operate ‘brick’ bookshops, ranging from their huge store in Piccadilly – a 1930s modernist building which was previously a rather up-market clothing shop –  to smaller outlets on university campuses, to sell Amazon’s Kindle in their stores.

This isn’t the first time that Waterstones and Amazon have collaborated.  For much of the 2000s, Waterstones had a web site which promoted its branches, but which also offered customers the opportunity to buy books through a Waterstones-branded version of Amazon’s online shop.  The strategic logic behind this was fairly straightforward.  Waterstones’s strengths were in their locations so they saw their core business as being about creating a sense of place in their bookshops.  For customers who really wanted to buy online, the reasoning was that Waterstones couldn’t compete with Amazon for the logistics and reach necessary to achieve a really good online service, so they would be better to pass customers on to the biggest player in the business.  From Amazon’s viewpoint Waterstones was just another source of referrals of business, and Amazon has always worked very effectively alongside partners.

So in the past there have been synergies between Waterstones and Amazon and the reasoning behind the current move is to find if such synergies exist today.  And part of the reasoning is to ensure that as E-books increase in importance, Waterstones does gain some benefit from being in that market.

Incidentally, if you are a bibliophile Londoner you may well find the name of Waterstones’s current managing director, James Daunt, familiar.  Daunt Books is a chain of just six shops, all based in prosperous areas of London, with a traditional feel and with enough of an emphasis on travel literature to justify a ‘browse by continent’ sidebar on their website.  Its cotton bags have acquired a level of popularity out of all proportion to the size of the chain, perhaps because somebody carrying one of the bags is neatly defined as somebody who would spend time in a bookshop.  James Daunt left the world of banking in the 1980s to start up Daunt Books, and only last year was recruited to take over Waterstones.  On the evidence of his previous enterprise, he does have a strong sense of place and some ideas about how to make this work for a bookshop.

Whatever happened to upmystreet?

October 23, 2012

For many years one of the most interesting websites that I used in explaining the power of the Internet was one called upmystreet.  You could input the name of a place, or most usefully a postcode, and find out useful data about the particular place.  It was a nice teaching tool, because with a group of students I could ask for a few volunteers to tell me their postcode and watch while I found out what was their streets were like.  It was a good illustration of what I term universal access – the effect that the Internet made information available to everybody when in the past it had been the preserve of specialists, in particular the ACORN classifications, which have been used for many years to .  Because it combined a range of data sources, it helped to bring to life the complexity of knowledge, and the intricacy of the picture that you might hope to build if you were finding out about an area which you don’t know well.

However upmystreet has now disappeared and the website redirects to Zoopla.  Now I’ve blogged about Zoopla before, and there’s a lot ot like about it, notably the web 2.0 characteristics that it combines data from different sources, and that it invites users to contribute and to refine the data.  It’s a better route than Google streetview if you want to find the street view of a particular address – just choose the address and click over the streetview tab which appears for a property.  It gives you a model for calculating home values and is quite transparent about how this is done.  It creates a Z-index for a particular postcode which is just a simple bottom-line figure which tells you the average value of each home in the postcode area.

But the Z-index is also afflicted by the same weakness as many other simple bottom-line figures: it doesn’t tell you about the area in any depth.  There are more detailed statistics about price trends, but Zoopla is unashamedly a property price website and the detailed data is all about house prices and rental values.  Click over ‘local info’ and you will get some neighbourhood statistics, but these are ones which are widely available and which refer to a large area – in London to entire London boroughs with populations of perhaps 300,000.  Again, as I’ve mentioned before in my blog, many London boroughs cover a diverse range of areas and the average statistics for the whole borough are fairly meaningless.

As far as I can tell there’s now nothing on the web which offers you the sort of demographic information that was once available at a postcode level.  Which seems a pity.