Scrub commuting - give us LOOFaaS!

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Why are most of us still commuting substantial distances to and from the office on most days? When organisations woke up to the Internet in the mid-1990s, one of its biggest touted benefits was the ability for staff to work remotely. Pundits talked up the opportunities for companies to save on office costs, boost workers' morale and help further the green agenda by reducing the CO2 emissions associated with commuting.  

But these were early days. Of those homes that were online, nearly all were using slow, dial-up connections (expensive ISDN being the only alternative back then) and few companies were thinking seriously either about environmental issues or about 'web-enabling' their corporate systems. 

Most believed the remote working vision would only catch on when technology and network speeds caught up with the advocates' aspirations (which, for the most part, they now have). But there was a more fundamental problem with the concept. To many workers, the idea of home-working didn't seem, if you'll excuse the pun, remotely attractive. 

Few viewed being trapped amid domestic hubbub, or robbed of physical contact with colleagues, as 'improving their work/life balance' (as most people still don't). There was also much debate about whether home internet connections would even catch on beyond the initial flurry of enthusiasts, prompting a fair bit of hand-wringing about an emerging 'digital divide'. 

Enter the 'electronic village hall' or telecentre (in fact, the idea was initially called 'telecottaging', but for obvious reasons the term failed to catch on). The concept was simple enough: communities would have their own local centres equipped with high-speed internet connections, multiple hot-desks and all the usual shared office facilities. 

Back then, it wasn't a feasible commercial proposition - companies just weren't set up to allow remote access to their systems. However, the idea of publicly-funded community telecentres did gain some traction, particularly in remote communities. For the most part, though, these were (and remain) drab facilities, built on the cheap - often little more than portacabins with a few PCs and a kettle. In the private sector, meanwhile, while there is today a healthy market for rented, managed office space, most of the demand comes from small businesses and individuals - not from large companies seeking to promote remote working among geographically dispersed employees. 

The topic resurfaced last week at a round-table discussion on the future of work communications among analysts, senior IT people and pundits, organised by Vodafone Global Enterprise (VGE). Nearly everyone at the meeting saw the merits of such centres, but few had seen any serious, concerted efforts to build or promote them among either large organisations or facilities providers. Likewise, no one was aware of any significant efforts among local authorities to encourage providers or employers to set up or use such facilities. 

But I reckon the time is ripe for us to revisit the notion in earnest. The more flexible IT architectures being introduced by many large companies make the idea of renting remote desks in dispersed, multi-tenanted facilities run by third parties a far more feasible proposition. Culturally, I think employees are more ready for it too. Many white-collar workers today are able to work at home or remotely on occasion (or even regularly). And many of them would relish the opportunity to do so more often if presented with an attractive local shared office option. 

What it's going to take is a smart provider to market and implement such a network of local centres effectively. And, given that everything these days is being recast 'as a service' - software as a service, platform as a service, infrastructure as a service, etc - what better time to be extending the concept to 'local online office facilities as a service' or, more catchily, LOOFaaS. Of course, they'd need to be a far cry from the soulless public telecentres we've seen previously - with high-speed internet access and secure WiFi, virtual meeting rooms, a mix of screened and open-plan desk space, funky and creative chill-out and social spaces, decent coffee, etc.

While it probably wouldn't be feasible to set something of this nature up in remote rural communities, I can't believe it's not a viable commercial proposition in most town centres, especially those with a large number of residents commuting to a nearby city or larger town. While a small number of such hubs are springing up to serve freelance types and start-up entrepreneurs, if the idea is to take off more broadly it will inevitably need to have broader appeal to large organisations too. 

My guess is most corporates will probably shy away from dealing with multiple, local providers of such facilities, so the real opportunity here - at least initially - is probably for existing facilities management and IT service companies capable of achieving the necessary economies of scale and presenting companies with a viable and attractive proposition from a trusted and reliable provider. That said, given the current lack of competition, there may be room for existing, smaller providers to adapt and expand. 

One driver to increase remote working is the fact companies are coming under increasing pressure to factor in the carbon cost of their employees' commute to work when calculating their overall CO2 footprint, something which a number of analysts believe is likely to become a mandatory reporting requirement in future. And like the best green initiatives, LOOFaaS would surely qualify as what the management jargonistas call a 'win-win' - bringing significant benefits both to organisations and local communities. 

People would be working among other local residents variously employed in an array of capacities by a diverse range of organisations. So they get the social benefits of a shared workspace without the office politics, while also feeling more connected to their local community. Likewise, they no longer have the stress or 'dead time' of their former commute. (It's well established, of course, that happy, social, unstressed employees are both healthier and more productive.) And as one delegate at the VGE round table noted, there would be a significant beneficial knock-on effect on local economies, which should see a notable increase in demand for goods and services - particularly since (as another attendee pointed out) employees would no longer be spending a huge slab of their salary on the steadily rising cost of commuting. 

Beyond these benefits, businesses are increasingly looking for ways they can 'source talent and innovation' from as wide a pool as possible. We are entering the age of connection, collaboration and corporate mashups. A model of organisations where the norm for most employees is to work among (and socialise with) people doing different jobs for different organisations is surely a productive way forward for all of us seeking to form new productive collaborations or broaden our businesses' exposure to diverse skills, knowledge and ideas.

Heard the one about the Twitter joke trial?

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Disclaimer: the blog that follows is entirely my personal opinion. It is not, however, a joke...

If you're a regular Twitter user you've probably seen quite a few tweets this week tagged #twitterjoketrial

On Wednesday, the High Court in London considered the second appeal of 28-year-old former finance worker Paul Chambers against his 2010 conviction for sending what the law deems to be a "clearly menacing" tweet. In fact, any seasoned Twitterer (and indeed any reasonable person armed with the facts) would see it for what it clearly was - a joke.

The tweet - an exasperated, off the cuff comment about the fact Robin Hood airport was closed due to snowfall days before Chambers had a flight booked to visit hs girlfriend in Northern Ireland, read:  

"Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!!"

For this "offence" Chambers has incurred a £1,000 fine (and significantly more in legal costs), lost two jobs and gained a criminal record. He didn't send his tweet to the airport, he simply shared it with his connections on the network. The only reason it was deemed "public" is because, unless users specify otherwise, Twitter makes all tweets publicly accessible and anyone can search the recent archive by keywords, should they actively choose to do so.  

Following the first appeal in November 2010, thousands of Twitter users (myself included) retweeted Chambers's original tweet appended with the hashtag #IAmSpartacus to demonstrate the widespread opposition to his prosecution. Prominent comedians and comedy writers including Stephen Fry, David Mitchell, Al Murray Charlie Brooker and Graham Linehan have all weighed in to the debate, variously offering vocal, moral and financial support to the defendant. Why? Because if Chambers's conviction stands, it sets a dangerous precedent that threatens anyone who might want to joke, rant or make flippant comments online.

As free speech lawyer David Allen Green (who is acting for Chambers) wrote in advance of the appeal:

Because this is the first "appellate" case on what constitutes a "menacing" communication over the internet, the decision of the High Court will have potentially immense significance for any person who sends any content over the internet. [...] If the CPS are successful, then the threshold for criminal liability will be low; if the submissions of Paul's legal team are accepted, then the threshold will be high.

To almost everyone who knows the facts and understands social media, the case seems utterly misguided and a ridiculous waste of public money. If this appeal fails (judgment is expected soon) Chambers will take his appeal to the Supreme Court, piling up yet more costs on both sides. On Wednesday, tweets were zipping past at the rate of about one a second, with next to none in support of the prosecution.

We should be well aware, however, that there are plenty outside the Twtterati who think Chambers was wrong to joke about bombing an airport on a searchable, public forum where his comments might conceivably be misconstrued. "He was an idiot," they say, "and should suffer the consequences. Let it serve as a lesson to him, and to others, that they should think a bit more carefully before they say something online that could be construed as threatening."

As Stephen Fry might say, what po-faced, pompous piffle!  There's a world of difference between someone making an anonymous, genuine-sounding threat or comment online and someone speaking conversationally on Twitter or any other social platform as they might in person. As Fry actually did say, Chambers's tweet was no more menacing than a man at a bar saying something like: "I'll kill my wife if she's late again." 

Fellow comedian David Mitchell said it even better in the Guardian after the original trial. And the humourless idiocy of those who might actually confuse the two was deftly highlighted again yesterday by this amusing disclaimer one Twitterer has appended to his profile. [update 11/02/2012: Al Murray has also written a good piece on the fiasco in today's Guardian.}

But in many ways the Twitter joke trial is just a sideshow - which isn't to lessen its significance, but merely to point out that there are far more dangerous threats to online freedom looming than this lamentable farce.

In the past few weeks alone, we've seen online protests (from the likes of Wikipedia, Flickr, Google and a slew of other organisations and individuals) against the ill-conceived SOPA and PIPA legislation the US (which has since been postponed, although not abandoned). Then there were demonstrations in central Europe and the resignation of an MEP over the insidious Anti Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), with further action planned for tomorrow.  

Far from being "apologists for piracy" (a label frequently used to dismiss opponents of these proposals) most of those protesting are doing so because of the potentially chilling implications of such proposals for free speech, privacy and online innovation.

First they would place huge burdens on many web-based businesses, hardware, software and network providers who could be mandated to introduce invasive monitoring, filtering and censorship technologies. More to the point, they are likely to be ineffective at trapping organised criminals, who will used advanced technological means to cover their tracks. 

In addition, the proposals have in the main been designed and lobbied for behind closed doors by large industries who want to preserve their market dominance and business models at the expense of smaller, more innovative market challengers. The operational, technological and financial constrictions they would place on both Internet start-ups and online social and community ventures could bring the unparalleled wave of Internet innovation we've seen in the past decade to a grinding halt. Even more chilling to anyone concerned with human rights, the proposals could make it far easier for authoritarian governments to control and suppress dissidents or unruly populations.

Of course there are some serious issues with online criminality that we need to address, but as Professor Jonathan Zittrain, author of "The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It", points out, the way to do so is not by implementing Draconian controls on technology and its users, but by using technologies to facilitate the power of open, online collaboration and innovate new solutions to new problems.

Many of us love working in high-tech roles and businesses precisely because of technology's potential to change the way we work, play, learn, socialise, collaborate, connect and do business - continually challenging us to do things better, smarter and in completely new ways. I believe we must do all we can to preserve this spirit of progress, innovation and freedom.

Some claim activists are exaggerating.  It is presposterous to suggest such legislation or trade agreements would be interpreted, implemented or abused in the ways many opponents are warning, they say. It'll never happen. Then again, before it happened, most of us would have said exactly the same about the Twitter joke trial.

Jim Mortleman is a business and technology writer/commentator, occasional comedy songwriter and long-time supporter of the Open Rights Group.
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Crowdsourcing the curriculum

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Don't speak too soon, but there's a chance Education Secretary Michael Gove's speech at the BETT show on Wednesday - where he announced the Government would be scrapping the current ICT curriculum in September - could be the catalyst for a fundamental transformation in UK classrooms that touches not just computing, but every part of the curriculum.

Unusually for a Coalition initiative that involves cutting something, this one has received almost universal welcome - albeit with some qualification (no pun intended). There is widespread agreement among educators, industry, policy-makers, pundits and pupils alike that the current system isn't working. It is failing to inspire and nurture tomorrow's coders and computer engineers, but it's also largely irrelevant and off-putting to the bulk of students who aren't technically inclined.

Not until they're 16 can pupils opt to study the more relevant (but by no means perfect) Computing A-Level, by which point most have already been turned off from pursuing the topic by years of tedious ICT lessons on how to create a spreadsheet or search the Internet.

The argument is well-worn. Last year's Livingstone-Hope Next Gen report on how to revitalise the UK video games industry said it; industry bodies such as the BCS, Institute of IT and e-Skills UK have said it; Google chief Eric Schmidt said it, and today's report from the Royal Society, Shut Down or Restart?, says it too.

Gove promised the Government would give schools the freedom to develop their own approaches for integrating computing across the curriculum as well as the freedom to take advantage of the many high-tech learning resources now available (e.g. the growing number of free online lessons available via the likes of O2 Learn and Khan Academy, and the emergence of ultra-low-cost programmable computers like Raspberry Pi). The minister also wants to see new computer science courses that reflect the fact computing is a "rigorous, fascinating and intellectually challenging" subject.

"Instead of children bored out of their minds being taught how to use Word and Excel by bored teachers, we could have 11-year-olds able to write simple 2D computer animations using an MIT tool called Scratch. By 16, they could have an understanding of formal logic previously covered only in university courses and be writing their own apps for smartphones," he said.

But, in what could provide a much-needed fillip for David Cameron's widely derided Big Society idea, the Government isn't prescribing a set course, but is instead seeking broad input to develop the new approach - from anyone and everyone who wants to contribute. As well as consulting experts and giving schools the freedom to experiment, Gove said: "I'd also like to welcome the online discussion launched today at and using the Twitter hashtag #schoolstech. We need a serious, intelligent conversation about how technology will transform education - and I look forward to hearing what everyone has to say."

And Schoolstech is by no means alone in driving discussion. Last night, for example, newly-formed independent think tank The Education Foundation held a timely gathering of experts and interested parties to thrash out The Future of Technology and Education at its 'Learning Lab' in London's West End. The event featured presentations from high-tech cheerleader and Bletchley Park campaigner Dr Sue Black, Next Gen report co-author Ian Livingstone (also the man behind Eidos, the company that gave the world Lara Croft); and senior Government policy advisor Rohan Silva.

Sue Black - who has also recently started the <goto> Foundation, a non-profit organisation to promote computer science - thought schools could be making much more of the UK's colourful computing history to inspire boys and girls alike to pursue the subject, citing figures like Alan Turing, Tommy Flowers, Dame Steve Shirley and Tim Berners-Lee. Other delegates agreed, with one pointing out that IT could do with a populist, media-friendly champion to promote the discipline, much as Professor Brian Cox has done for physics.

Ian Livingstone, meanwhile, welcomed the Government's support for his recommendations, but noted the one key element missing from Gove's speech was a recognition that the UK needs to value the arts as much as the sciences - and end the artificial division between them. There needs to be much more in the way of teamwork and cross-disciplinary initiatives in schools to allow the UK's natural creative flair to shine through, Livingstone thought.

"It's ridiculous that kids have to choose between art and science," he said. "They are joined at the hip." For example creating a video game involves animation, graphics and thinking up creative plots.  As another delegate pointed out: "Coding is artistic and art is technical."

There was skepticism among some in the audience about whether such changes were ever likely to come about. After all, politicians are by and large much better at making visionary speeches than they are at realising those visions. Giving schools the freedom to do what they want clearly won't work if they have insufficient resources and expertise. For example, the Government must make good on its commitment to ensure teachers have the relevant training and skills. Others felt teachers needed to be freed from the demotivating bureaucracy of league tables and excessive paperwork before real change could take hold.

However, Rohan Silva thought the  "evolving, organic, open source" approach outlined by Gove would prevent the '"leaden hand of Government" becoming an obstacle to real change. He also claimed the need to end the arts/science divide was "on the agenda of the most senior people in government".

Personally, having seen a raft of exciting high-tech and online educational initiatives and ideas emerging from the grassroots over the past few years, I'm broadly optimistic that those passionate about IT and education really can help to kick-start a revolution in UK classrooms.

We need to replicate the same sense of excitement and creative possibility around computing that those of us of a certain age felt when we began programming our Sinclair ZX81s, Spectrums and BBC Micros 30 years ago. That revolution sparked the entire computer games industry right here in the UK, of course. Okay, we've let things slip somewhat since, but just imagine what we could do with today's technology if we put our collective minds to it. Imagine, then make it so.
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