GPS and the power of open government data

10 May 2013


President Obama recently signed an executive order that will require government organisations to release their data to the public in an easily digestible form. The White House says that the move will give entrepreneurs and innovators the information they need to create engaging new products.

To see what sort of potential this government data holds for the private sector, look at the past. Prior to the 1980s GPS data was mostly relegated to military and government organisations. It wasn't until 1983 and the release of GPS data to the public that consumer mapping technology really began to take shape.

At the time, then-President Ronald Reagan ordered GPS data become freely available to the public. Reagan's decree came following the crash of Korean Air flight 007, which was shot down after getting lost and flying to near Soviet airspace.

By 1989, US company Magellan released the first commercially available portable GPS system. The Magellan NAV 1000 used GPS data from government satellites to put GPS right next to a citizen's Walkman.

The release of the device, and the government data it used, is why we have GPS navigation today. From Google Maps to Apple Maps, all of the world's most basic turn-by-turn navigation wouldn't be possible without government data.

The example goes to show that the government has types of data that would be almost impossible to get without an open initiative to release it. The US government has the resources to do things that the private sector cannot.

Government agencies have the abilities and options to collect massive amounts of data on things that private firms would never spend money on. If it wasn't for the military's work with GPS, the private sector could be years behind what today's mapping apps are capable of.

A startup would never be able to map the globe or launch a satellite for the sake of a navigation app. By giving out government data, the Obama administration has opened the door for clever entrepreneurs to use data without doing the legwork.

CISPA rises from the grave

12 Apr 2013

capitol hill

The Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) is back again. Rising from the ashes of a failed Senate vote, the bill has found renewed life thanks to the House Intelligence Committee.

Committee members approved the bill by an 18 to two vote. This go-around includes amendments which supporters say resolve issues with the bill.

Of course, opponents once again disagree. Advocacy groups and the White House continue to express alarm over the bill's failure to address privacy concerns.

Opponents' issues with the bill are the same ones they had last year when the original CISPA bill died on the Senate floor. They fear that a lack of governmental oversight will cause defence agencies to use personal user data for the wrong reasons.

The issues remained unresolved because of proponents of CISPA who say the government needs to be able to handle whatever data they do receive with as little bureaucratic interference as possible.

Both sides have their points and both sides will be fighting for a compromise. CISPA, or something like it, will keep cropping up because both the government and private enterprise have too much riding on some sort of data-sharing initiative.

With reports of state-sponsored cyber-attacks on the rise and the constant threat of local hackers, CISPA is an important piece of legislation for the tech lobby.

Unlike SOPA, which didn't have the support of Silicon Valley, CISPA is technology company approved. SOPA was made for the entertainment industry and its bid to fight piracy. CISPA (and new-CISPA) isn't really about piracy. It's about cyber attacks.

The bill lays the ground work so private industry can share cyber-threat intelligence without the possibility of getting sued. With CISPA, Facebook can send data about a local cyber-attack to the DOD so it can be informed and alert other tech companies of the threat.

In its current form, the DOD can also use that data in broad strokes. For example, it can pick up personal information that was received from a Facebook security data dump and use it for non-cyber threat purposes.

New-CISPA discourages that sort of tactic. However, what exactly constitutes a cyber-threat is currently an expansive definition.

The bill is making its rounds to Congress next week. It may get passed their but will most likely fail in the Senate. From that point it will either revive itself with amendments or its ideas will be reinterpreted in another bill.

Some sort of data-sharing act will keep coming and with the right opponents may come out with stronger privacy protections. How a data-sharing bill turns out will be determined by who ends up fighting for and against it.

Over the course of the coming year it will be interesting to see how bills like CISPA evolve. It will be interesting to see how the public debate grows and changes. Theirs no telling how it's going to turn out, but its becoming obvious that it isn't going away.

President Obama takes part in Google Hangout with regular Joes

15 Feb 2013


President Obama recently held a Google Hangout with voters just a day after delivering a State of Union address. The hangout, dubbed a Fireside hangout, covered a slew of info. Obama chatted about patent trolls, his love the web, and even the uselessness of pennies.

On the topic of patent trolls, the president said much more work is needed to stop the trolls from trolling. He said more discussion on the matter needs to be had before change can happen.

"I do think that our efforts at patent reform only went about halfway to where we need to go," Obama said.

"What we need to do is pull together additional stakeholders and see if we can build some additional consensus on smarter patent laws."

President Obama also discussed why he likes the internet, saying that the web's openness and potential to bring people together are what he most appreciates about it.

"I'm an ardent believer that what's powerful about the internet is its openness and the capacity for people to get there and just introduce a new idea with low barriers to entry."

Last but not least, the president fielded some questions on pennies during the hangout. In summation, Obama says he doesn't know why they exist. He alluded to one hangout participant that he was even in favour of stopping production on the copper Lincolns.

Bill Gates takes to Reddit for Q&A

12 Feb 2013


Bill Gates has become the latest high-profile figure to take to Reddit for an Ask Me Anything (AMA). During his far reaching Q&A the Microsoft founder talked about everything from his philanthropic goals to his views on Steve Jobs.

As you'd expect, Gates is still a fan of Microsoft products. During the AMA Gates reported that he likes the Microsoft Surface. He told Reddit users that the device is "very nice".

While the Surface Pro is fine and good, the cooler Microsoft product Gates has is a Perspective Pixel display.

"I am using a Perceptive Pixel display right now. [A] huge Windows 8 touch whiteboard. These will come down in price over time and be pervasive," wrote Gates.

For those that don't know Perspective Pixel is a large-scale display maker that was bought by Microsoft last year. The firm builds touchscreens that can be used for presentations and a variety of business meetings.

Gates shared a picture of his big display so Reddit users could get a sense of the high priced device, and prove he really was the man behind the question responses.

The Redmond founder also took sometime to discuss his relationship with Steve Jobs. Gates told the Reddit community that the two spent a lot of time together when Microsoft made an investment in Apple in the late 90s.

"He and I respected each other. Our biggest joint project was the Mac where Microsoft had more people on the project than Apple did as we wrote a lot of applications," continued Gates.

Speaking of Apple, Gates says he has used Apple products in the past. Unfortunately, the former chief executive at Microsoft didn't go into a lot of detail about his views on the iPhone.

"Microsoft does a lot of software for the Mac. I mostly use Windows machines but from time to time I have tried all of Apple products," wrote Gates.

Gates goes into a lot more in his AMA and the whole thing is worth a read. He spoke about his philanthropic work and even discussed his favorite book of the last decade.

For Reddit, Gates AMA makes another huge get for the group. Last year, President Obama also took time out to chat with Reddit users.

Obama's AMA was done in the run up to November's election and featured a lot of talk about internet privacy regulation.

Star Wars Death Star gets Kickstarter campaign

06 Feb 2013

A Kickstarter has been created to build an open source Death Star.

The campaign comes following the US government's refusal to build a Death Star despite calls by the public to do so. The campaign's creators are looking to raise £20,000,000 over the next 54 days to build their Death Star.

Donors who donate more than £10 will also get a droid named after them.

"In November 2012 the people asked for a Death Star. The government said no. In light of continuing threats we should build it ourselves," wrote the campaigns creators on the projects Kickstarter page.

Last month, the tax-paying US public demanded the Obama administration build a Death Star. But the administration declined the idea citing the excessive expense involved in building a destroyer of planets.

However, Joe public is not so easily dissuaded. Following the rejection a Kickstarter was started to build an open source Death Star. Open Source, obviously, may be a bad idea as the blue prints for a Death Star can never land in the hands of the rebels.

The campaign currently has the modest goal of £20,000,000. However, the Kickstarter's stretch goal is for £543,000,000,000,000,000. A goal even the campaign's backers say they will not reach.

"The main challenge is assuring Kickstarter that this is a joke and not a serious project. As proof, the goal has been set high enough to make successful funding almost impossible," said the campaigners on the their Kickstarter page.

Star Wars could be key to solving UK IT skills shortage

14 Jan 2013


When it comes to boosting skills in the UK IT sector, a key message – and one often referenced in V3’s current Make IT Better campaign - is that we should try to make science and technology more ‘inspiring’ subjects to study.

The idea is, don’t scare off the next-generation of computer whizz kids by revealing that a lot of the job entails repetitive tasks and pain-staking testing; instead make sure that those leading the way – techies in government, businesses and schools – are role models for the youth of today, with enough street cred to stand shoulder to shoulder with footballers and reality TV stars.

And here’s where we fall down in the UK. Take this quote, selected from a random online article about the lack of science, technology, engineering and maths skills (and by the way, Stem hardly sounds an industry many would aspire to be in).

Lords Science and Technology Committee report chairman Lord Willis, noted, “When you have a university like Cambridge saying that even with an A* in mathematics we are having to give remedial maths in order to study engineering there is something not quite right if we are going to produce the very best to compete with the world.

"In reality the quality of the Stem graduates coming out of universities does not meet the requirements of industry and in fact is ultimately not even likely to meet the requirements of academia."

He’s making an important point, but the messaging is dull. I doubt anyone reading that quote would be enthused to rise up and improve the maths GCSE curriculum.

Lord Willis, and all your colleagues in UK government concerned about the IT skills shortage here, please take a lesson from Paul Shawcross, chief of the Science and Space Branch at the White House Office of Management and Budget, on how to engage the nation on this issue.

Shawcross spotted an opportunity to highlight the work of his department, and encourage more people to pursue a sci/tech career, based on a Star Wars-themed petition submitted to the White House.

The petition to ‘Secure resources and funding, and begin construction of a Death Star by 2016’ aimed to spur job creation in the fields of construction, engineering and space exploration by focusing defence resources on a space-superiority platform and weapon system.

The US government could have just issued a standard ‘no’ response to the petition, but instead Shawcross – clearly a Star Wars aficionado – crafted a detailed response, littered with references to the galaxy far far away and acting as a rallying cry for the sci/tech sector.

You know you’re in for a good read, when the headline of a government petition reply is: ‘This Isn't the Petition Response You're Looking For’.

Shawcross initially listed some of the reasons why the government couldn’t go ahead with the request:

"The construction of the Death Star has been estimated to cost more than $850,000,000,000,000,000. We're working hard to reduce the deficit, not expand it.
The Administration does not support blowing up planets.

"Why would we spend countless taxpayer dollars on a Death Star with a fundamental flaw that can be exploited by a one-man starship?"

In the same comical tone, Shawcross went on to detail all the current achievements by the US government space team: the International Space Station, which routinely welcomes visiting spacecraft and repairs on-board garbage mashers; two robot science labs - one wielding a laser - roving around Mars; and not forgetting Nasa's Commercial Crew and Cargo Program Office (C3PO).

“Even though the United States doesn't have anything that can do the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs, we've got two spacecraft leaving the Solar System and we're building a probe that will fly to the exterior layers of the Sun,” he noted.

“We don't have a Death Star, but we do have floating robot assistants on the Space Station, a president who knows his way around a light saber and advanced (marshmallow) cannon, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which is supporting research on building Luke's arm, floating droids, and quadruped walkers.”

And then came the masterstroke, where Shawcross proved the value of his sci-fi film fanaticism a thousand times over: “We are living in the future! Enjoy it. Or better yet, help build it by pursuing a career in a science, technology, engineering or math-related field.

“If you do pursue a career in a science, technology, engineering or math-related field, the Force will be with us! Remember, the Death Star's power to destroy a planet, or even a whole star system, is insignificant next to the power of the Force.”

That post was everywhere over social networks over the weekend, and no doubt managed to reach more of the target audience than any traditional IT skills marketing campaign could ever dream to. 

So, to all members of sci/tech committees in any far away galaxies out there, or just the UK, please find your inner Force and aim to inspire rather than bore the next generation of techies, whether that’s by following Barack Obama, with his Astronomy Night on the South Lawn, or just creating IT skills campaigns that pass on a serious message in a less than serious tone.

We need to act soon before more would-be IT stars are seduced by the dark side - or media studies, as it's otherwise known.

Marissa Mayer and Tim Cook up for Time's Person of the Year

18 Dec 2012

marissa-mayer-hope-posterTwo Silicon Valley executives are in competition with president Obama and Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi for Time Magazine's Person of 2012 award.

Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer and Apple chief executive Tim Cook will look to beat out the political leaders for the award. Mayer candidacy comes as she tries to bring Yahoo back to its glory days. While Cook attempts to move out of the shadow of Apple's founder Steve Jobs.

If the two executives win the award they will join the ranks of past winners like Mark Zuckerberg, who won the award in 2010. Other notable winners include Vladimir Putin, Jeff Bezos, and You.

If Mayer wins it will add to her rather eventful year. She was appointed chief executive of Yahoo last July.

For Cook, the win would be big news for the man who stepped into Steve Jobs shoes late last year. During his tenure as chief executive of Apple, Cook has overseen the release of the iPhone 5, iPad Mini, and the much maligned Apple Maps.

If V3 had a vote, and we don't, we'd give serious consideration to Mayer. Not only has she had one of the most eventful years in Silicon Valley but she's also put her fingerprints all over Yahoo during her brief tenure.

Fixing Yahoo is no easy task. However, Mayer has so far shown she has the vision and support to get it done. Plus, she'd be the first women to win the award since former president of the Philippines Corazon Aquino won it in 1986.

President puts turkey pardon up for Facebook vote

21 Nov 2012

Every year the president of the United States chooses one turkey to be pardoned on Thanksgiving.

The pardoned turkey ends up not being eaten for Thanksgiving dinner and lives a peaceful life on a turkey farm. Those not so fortunate end up being served with gravy and cranberry sauce.

This year, the pardoned turkey will be chosen by the people. The White House has set up a Facebook competition to decide which turkey will be spared under the munificence of president Obama.

The competition is between two fowls, Cobbler and Gobbler. According to the White House, Cobbler likes Carly Simon and Gobbler likes any music with a fiddle. Both are reported to hate the fact they are incapable of flight.

Polls for the turkey election close at 8pm EST on 20 November. As in most US elections, votes in Florida will count more and Ohio is considered the key to the election.

Tradition usually dictates that only one Turkey shall remain. However, the White House says that even the losing turkey will be spared this year. According to presidential staffers, both turkeys will be spared of the traditional sacrifice but only the winner will be granted face time with the president.


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