With much of the south of the UK currently underwater and suffering from storm damage and power cuts, things are pretty bleak for many.
So anything that can make a small difference is to be welcomed and the good folks at Tech City have done exactly that by co-ordinating a ‘hackathon’ session in the capital to try and develop apps for those in flood-hit areas.
On Sunday around 200 developers, both individuals and employees from the likes of Twitter, Microsoft and Google, got together to use open data about the floods provided by the government to cobble together quick and useful apps that could prove helpful for those affected.
Teams were formed and each put together a two-minute pitch for judges from the Cabinet Office. Those picked out included UKFloodAlerts, which can be used to warn users of risks from burst rivers, power cuts or impassable roads.
Another chosen as a winner was called ViziCities that uses data from the ViziCities platform to make 3D maps of the flood level to make it clearer how areas have been affected.
Joanna Shields, Tech City UK chairman who led the initiative, praised the efforts of those involved and said it proved the “power of government opening up data”.
“In a meeting on Friday convened at No. 10 Downing Street, [the] government called on the tech community to best use its wealth of flood data and the response we’ve seen from developers has been fantastic,” she said.
“Over the course of the weekend we had hundreds of people volunteer their time to produce genuinely innovative apps that are testament to the creativity, imagination and generosity of our local tech community.”
The hope is that the apps will now go live and those in affected areas can get them on their phones and have a little more information about what's happening in their area. It may not be much, but it all helps, and underlines the potential of open data to help the public.
By V3's Dan Worth
As noted by myself and numerous big-name figures in the public and private sector, the damage the PRISM spying scandal could inflict on the global economy and key industries, such as the cloud, is catastrophic. By being caught snooping not only on foreign firms, but also a number of political figures in countries that are supposedly allied with the US, the NSA seriously damaged international trust.
This was showcased to great effect in 2013 when Deutsche Telekom said it was considering re-routing all user information through German data centres and servers, in a bid to protect its customers from NSA snooping.
For this reason, I was overjoyed last week when president Barack Obama promised he was going to explain what new measures and safeguards he planned to put in place to ensure a scandal like PRISM does not reoccur.
However, come the big day when he took the stage and began outlining the new measures, my feelings towards his proposed reforms were at best mixed.
On the one hand Obama got a lot right. The US president said he would work to change the way PRISM requests could be handed to companies and increase the amount of information that the businesses involved can disclose to the public.
Specifically Obama pledged to put in place a series of fresh measures created by the attorney general, on how requests using the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and National Security Letters can be made.
FISA and National Security Letters were used by the NSA to force numerous companies, including Google, Yahoo, Apple and Microsoft, to hand over vast amounts of customer data. The nature of the requests means the companies are not allowed to disclose what information was handed over without risk of arrests. The secret nature of the requests is one of the key reasons many people and businesses are still concerned about the safety and sovereignty of their data.
Even better, Obama also promised to make sure the public sector and general public would be represented in the approval process of data-gathering campaigns. He pledged to create a new independent, non-governmental panel of advocates to appear at the secret courts, which will approve or deny operations such as PRISM. Candidates for the new panel of advocates will be approved by congress.
All this sounds great, right? Well on one level it was...until Obama went on the offensive against PRISM critics, boldly saying the US would not apologise to groups or countries affected by PRISM.
"Many countries, including those that feigned surprise following the Snowden revelations, are trying to penetrate our networks. Our agencies will continue to gather intelligence on foreign governments' intentions. We will not apologise for doing it better," he said.
Worse still, in a move all too familiar to those that lived through the Bush era, Obama resorted to constantly mentioning 9/11 as a justification for operations such as PRISM. For me, this is serious cause for concern.
After all, Obama failed to disclose key details, such as what information, or how soon after receiving FISA requests companies will be able to reveal to their customers that they handed information to the NSA. Additionally, by vetting candidates for the new independent, non-governmental panel of advocates through congress – a body full of individuals that serve the US – it's unlikely that European businesses' concerns will be high a high priority.
As a consequence, while the new reforms have the potential to help ensure scandals such as PRISM don't reoccur, they also have the potential to be completely ineffectual; the outcome will be determined by how the US government choses to implement them. As a result, for now at least I can't see Obama's reforms winning back the trust of any concerned European business or governments.
By V3's Alastair Stevenson
In fair Euston we set our scene, where news has emerged that author Mark Forsyth discovered that newly installed WiFi filters at the British Library have banned possibly the greatest work in the history of the English language: Shakespeare's Hamlet.
The filters were acting overzealously to some of the more bloody elements of Hamlet, which is about murder and revenge, after all. The British Library acknowledged the error, blaming the newly installed WiFi service, which it offers free, for being set too strictly.
"We have recently introduced a new WiFi service. It’s early days in the implementation of this service and we are aware that the new filter has been blocking certain sites erroneously. We are actively working to resolve this issue," it said in a statement.
There’s a nice element of irony in this, as it shows just how ridiculous filtering can become, especially as the government attempts to impose this upon internet service providers, claiming it will protect people from horrible content. The filters may protect them from a few dodgy sites, but they will also stop them reading the nation’s greatest writer.
In honour of this story, and with our deepest apologies to The Bard, we humbly offer this sonnet, telling the tale in rhyme.
In the halls of the British Library
An institute of learning and knowledge
Filled with scholars and students from college
A man uses the WiFi, offered free
He searches ‘Hamlet’, the Bard’s finest tale
Told with wit, charm and artistic license
But also filled with death and violence
So much so it is deemed beyond the pale
By the WiFi filters that have been set –
So nasty and evil sites can be blocked
And rightly too, so users are not shocked –
But they have ended up banning Hamlet!
Shakespeare would laugh at our filter terrors
Calling it a comedy of errors
By V3's Dan Worth, who hopes his creative writing teacher would be proud
While flicking through today's government document concerning Britain's digital platform for growth, we spotted something that amused us.
In order to demonstrate the usage of the wireless spectrum, the report referred to an image produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica in 2001 (below). We forgot that Britannica existed, which wasn't helped by the fact that the company stopped publishing its physical editions last year.
It's nice to see such colourful imagery in what is otherwise a standard government report, but eagle-eyed V3 staffers spotted a few things that were missing from this formerly cutting-edge diagram.
For starters, as this diagram is intended to show the common uses of the wireless spectrum in the UK, the mention of VHF television was quite a surprise given that the UK stopped broadcasting VHF TV signals in 1985. DAB – which has been broadcasting for the best part of two decades on the VHF frequency alongside FM (this, thankfully, receives a mention) – is also notably absent. Perhaps it is a statement about the format's sluggish uptake.
Elsewhere, we see no sign of WiFi, which we would hesitantly say play a reasonably important role in the UK's wireless offering. It would be found somewhere in the SHF range, in case you were wondering. And while we do see reference to mobile phones through the use of the long-forgotten phrase "cellular phone", there is no talk of 4G in this particular visual demonstration.
Finally, it's good to see an old-fashioned cathode ray tube (CRT) TV getting its time in the spotlight; there's nothing quite like the glow of a CRT to bring out wistful thoughts of screen burn and square eyes.
By V3's Michael Passingham, who loves his cellular phone
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.
The release of an annual transparency report is quickly becoming part of the status quo in Silicon Valley.
As consumers begin sharing more and more data with technology companies its becoming increasingly important to know what is happening to your data. In a world with social media, understanding how and for what purposes consumer data is being used is now a necessity.
As consumers become more aware of the information they are sharing, so to are companies starting to open up about what they do with that data. From Google to Twitter, Silicon Valley is starting to open up about how many and what types of data requests they receive each year.
Last January, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) called on tech firms to make transparency reports the new norm.
The EFF started by calling on Microsoft to release a detailed report on the requests they receive for Skype user data. Then, the group took it one step further and asked the whole of Silicon Valley to make reports part of the status quo.
With the recent release of Microsoft's Skype transparency report, the EFF completed phase one of its mission. However, their task is not over just yet. The EFF now wants every tech company to buy into the idea of data sharing transparency.
Microsoft's recent transparency report is a strong first step. Having one of the biggest tech companies in the world step in line with a transparency status quo is a major coup.
Redmond and Skype were one of the last major holdouts in the push for consistent transparency reports. Now, with the latest addition, there should not be any reason for present and future companies to not offer transparency reports.
The information withheld in those reports is important because they hold government and law enforcement accountable for the type of data they request. By knowing that each request for data is being compiled, government agencies should be wary of making fraudulent data requests.
By making transparency requests the new norm Silicon Valley is making the various government agencies of world accountable for the requests they are making.
When George Osborne’s team advised the chancellor to join Twitter in an effort to, no doubt, show how in touch with the people he was, they probably thought it was also a nice way of distracting people form the harsh realities of the budget he was due to deliver.
The plan seemed to be working, with thousands of Twitter users abusing Osborne on the site, and numerous memes sprouting to mock and ridicule the chancellor.
While this was all fun and games, the serious side of Twitter has since come forth to prove what a hazardous tool it, and the web in general can be, after The Evening Standard accidentally posted details of the budget online before Osborne had even begun speaking.
An over zealous member of the team’s Twitter account put the paper’s front page splash out, and although it was hastily deleted – oh, can you imagine the scramble for the delete button? – once it was online there was no hope of saving the situation.
I wish to apologise for a very serious mistake by the @eveningstandard earlier which resulted in our front page being tweeted.— Joe Murphy (@JoeMurphyLondon) March 20, 2013
As we’ve seen many times before, the internet seem ephemeral but the reality is very different and once something is hosted online, especially via Twitter, it’s very hard to stop that information going viral. It’s as good as impossible, really.
For Osborne, the leak could even cost him his job as former chancellors have fallen on their sword for similar incidents, and there would be a delicious irony if Osborne’s downfall was caused by Twitter, in a roundabout way, on the very day he joined the site.
The death of 26-year-old internet activist and co-creator of Reddit, Aaron Swartz, has unleashed an outpouring of sympathy and tributes online. But none of the eulogies are perhaps as surprising as the one written yesterday by Mike Bracken.
While Bracken's comments – praising Swartz's “unbridled eagerness to apply the toolkit of the internet age in the service of civil society,” – were in keeping with many of the sentiments expressed online, what made them unusual is Bracken's job, and the place he published the comments.
For those that weren't immediately aware, Bracken is the executive director of Digital at the Cabinet Office. The comments were published on the Government Digital Service blog.
Prior to his death, Swartz had been pursued by the legal authorities in the US, for his involvement in the unauthorised downloading of academic papers.
While his prosecution has been widely condemned by internet activists, it is highly unusual to have government officials pay tribute to those suspected of breaking the law.
"We are shocked and saddened by the death of Aaron Swartz. Some of us at GDS were fortunate to have met him; others were involved in the many projects he worked on; all of us are in some way indebted to his legacy," he wrote.
In a footnote, Bracken explains his thinking behind making, what he recognised might be a controversial post.
"I understand this may seem the wrong place for these sentiments but we also believe in openness and we think that government departments should behave as though there are humans in them," he said.
"This is from our human side. I apologise in advance if anyone thinks I made the wrong call. That decision was all mine."
At V3, we welcome Bracken's comments. If he can keep such principles in tact in the delivery of digital services in the UK, we're all likely to be the better for it.