Archive for June, 2011

Local is the new Global

Monday, June 13th, 2011

“Think Global, Act Local” or so the cliché goes. Thing is, this is about to become more possible and more accurate than ever before.  What this means for us as individuals in a modern society is a classic case for "arrogance of the present", _we just don’t know_, because most of us find it hard to imagine a world of such hyper-connectivity where the world takes on a very different viewpoint where most things become available within local reach but offering global supply.

For most of us, things like Foursquare and Gowalla are amusing distractions used primarily by the authorities to help identify and track the location and movement of geeks, but in fact they (and the infrastructural elements they rely on) will ultimately become the very fabric of how we access, consume and pay for services in the very near future.

batcaveI’m OK with the fact that most people think the above is a bit of a stretch, however, I’m actually more worried about the fact that because we can’t really imagine how all this stuff will come together, I don’t think we’ve properly figured out the true potential of what a powerful, connected, _local_ view on our world means yet and as such, I think we risk being derailed (at worst) or delayed (at best) in our ability to deliver an incredibly transformative change to the way in which technology enhances our lives.

Assuming we buy the current trajectory of smartphone sales  (n.b. when do we stop calling them smart? When everybody is smart, is _anybody_ smart anymore?).  We know that pretty soon, there will be more smartphones than dumb ones and new sales of slates and phones will outstrip PC’s – the mobile device revolution is finally here El Presidente, so let’s move on and think about the really important stuff before Apple ships another iPhone and everyone gets distracted again.

There are three key areas we need to figure out and triangulate if we are to achieve the vision, these are:

  1. Location (where am I?, where are you? and what else is near?)
  2. Geographic Meta data (POI at a macro and micro level)
  3. Connectivity (people, networks and devices)

I’m not going to get everything on the table on all 3 of these in one post alone, so for now, let’s just start with a broad definition, ready for deeper exploration in the future.

There are three dimensions of location that we need to supply:  Where am I? Where is the "target"? What else is nearby? And of these three it is the first that should concern us most.  We currently rely on a brilliant but outdated and vulnerable service to locate ourselves which is also extremely flawed in its ability to provide accurate and timely location information to us in our localised existence or rather, should I more simply say, indoors or in the city…

Controversy aside, we desperately need _a range_ of mechanisms to identify our location and to be able to do so in a way that is fast, battery friendly and works indoors.  Funnily enough, it actually doesn’t need to be that precise, it just needs to be within 5m, we can figure out the rest for ourselves.  Good news is, (if you read behind the headlines) we are well on the way to solving this, externally at least, we need a much better (standard?) approach for how this might be achieved cost effectively indoors.

Geographic Meta-data
We need to think about location meta data (points of information etc) at both a macro and micro level.  At a micro level this is about a taxonomy of stores, services, opening times and other ancillaries like street furniture (e.g. post boxes, gritting bins etc) , at a micro level this needs to be really extended down to a very near field level providing a much more granular view of the environment around you.  This level of detail is crucial, for example, it’s no longer enough to know that the train station has disabled access facilities, you need to know which _exact_ door is the one that has zero lip for disabled access, or which end of the train should you stand to be nearest to the exit for your particular stop etc.

North America seems to do quite well at a macro level whereas in the UK we don’t with retailers and service providers (public and private) being rather slow (myopically so) in signing up and advertising in the established platforms.  We all suck however at the micro level, and it is this information we really need to figure out how to easily acquire and on-board.

This is about remembering we live in an "occasionally disconnected" world.  We may have pervasive mobile broadband but this doesn’t mean that it’s always available.  As application designers however, we seem to have forgotten that.  Most mobile apps these days will only function if a connection is present – this is a bad approach.  I live in the most populous country in Europe and work in the most populous city in the world yet I still experience several occasions _every day_ when I am without signal.  This probably adds up to about 2-3 hours _a day_ when I can’t use my smart device because the app designer has not thought about local caching (and before you start dusting off that fanboy attitude you’ve been saving, I’m packing multiple devices and they’re all the same).  This is not going to change anytime soon because we lack the funds and science (we’re dealing with the laws of physics here too ya know) so we need to get over it. Design apps and mobile platforms for the "occasionally disconnected" world and we’ll be fine.  (BTW – the historians among you will remember, this is what we used to do before we got fat, dumb and lazy with the promise of mobile broadband. When patchy mobile data was the best that was available, you were grateful for it and respectful of its use, 4G connection you say?, all we had was the thin end of a damp bit of string – Luxury…).

Connectivity is also about connecting individuals (When you’re walking down the street and pass a café that your best mate is sitting in, you want to know right? Or do you?)  and it’s also about connecting devices, the whole peer to peer network thing, but played out on mobile. (Man if I was smart I’d be buying shares in Groove and Ray Ozzie now, no wait, been there, missed out on that.)  Both of these we’ll cover in detail some other time.

So you will have figured out by now, there are no answers this week, just big questions.  Great for me as it gives me more room for what I think is the most important of the 127 "big bets" we’re undoubtedly going to have for months ahead and great for you because maybe, you’re sitting out there with some of the answer, come on now, don’t be shy.

Moving the Hive with Social Buzz

Friday, June 3rd, 2011

The other night I was sat watching Winnie the Pooh with my son for about the 453rd time – to be fair, I had made him watch one of the great cinema classics of our time the night before (The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension – obviously) and now it was his turn to choose.  Anyhow, while Pooh was thinking about honey, I was thinking about bees.  As they coalesced to create that comedy swarm formation that is the cliché of so many cartoons, I sat there wondering if bees actually did that in real life, and you know what?  They do.

Bee2aThe day after watching Pooh, Tigger et al bounce their way through the Hundred Acre Wood I came across a wonderful study about how honey bee colonies move around from year to year, finding the absolute best place for them to live for the coming season.  It’s the way that they make the decision about where’s the best place to live that’s really interesting and ultimately of most use to us when we think about what makes good social engagement work and how contrary the “hive” decision making process is to what you would expect, when you realise that the decision on where to move the colony to is not based on consensus and compromise, but is actually simply about quorum or critical mass.

Bee1aAs late spring approaches, the queen and about 10,000 of her subjects, set off to find a new home and re-establish the colony.  In order to do this, they leave the hive and form a swarm.  From there a much smaller group of scouts (a few hundred) head out and look around for suitable locations (NOTE: at no point do the bees _ever_ enlist the help of an estate agent which also says a lot about the incredible intelligence of the insect mind).  What the scouts are looking for are about twelve or more suitable locations for the new hive. One by one the scouts return and communicate with the swarm about what they’ve found.  (If you’re really interested in this, the way they do this is called a Waggle Dance – which, as I have now learned, is pretty incredible and not, as I previously thought, just an odd name for a rather splendid beer.) 

But the really interesting thing for us, is not only _how_ the decision gets made, but also _where_ it gets made.    You would think that each scout would return to the swarm, report back, have a long debate with the queen and her advisers, send out for pizza and beer and then decide (hey, it’s how it would work for me if I was a bee.)  Actually, it is the activity of the scouts while they are out on patrol that makes the decision which is accepted and acted upon without question by the rest of the colony.  It’s a question of quorum vs consensus really.  You would expect the hive mind to be all about consensus, i.e. “we all agree this is the right thing to do” whereas in reality it is simply the first potential new home to reach a quorum or critical mass (in this case 15 or more scouts present at one time), once this is reached, the decision is simply taken as made and the colony moves to its new home.

Bee3aBy now, you’re probably wondering what the point of all this is besides an interesting lesson in entomology, well, in my mind, what happens for the bees is actually what happens for us when we try to “activate” social media campaigns or engagement.  There’s been a lot written about the hive mind and the collective intelligence of the crowd and trust me, I am not jumping on that bandwagon (not now anyway).  What I am really trying to point out that your job in creating “buzz” (oh, the irony) is _not_ about the majority, or even the queens or the “leaders” of those colonies.  No, this is simply about establishing enough critical mass with the scouts. 

Internet users are relatively fickle beasts (you want evidence – just ask MySpace). As a result, I firmly believe your success in gaining “influence” or “reach” (however you decide to measure them) comes from engaging a series of smaller, more manageable niche audiences and exciting and enthusing them about you, your brand, your story etc.  I think this requires a bit more creative effort in the short term (to identify and create relevance with these individual swarms/niches) but over the longer term requires a hell of a lot less “muscle” (financial or otherwise) than would be required if you try move the hive en masse.

You don’t need to move the entire colony to get the volume, you just need to enchant individuals to build up that quorum – oh yeah, that and a pretty awesome waggle dance…