Author Archives: Chris Brownlee

Crackdown On Mobile Use While Driving Announced By Police

Crackdown On Mobile Use While Driving Announced By Police

Police in England and Wales have announced that they will be conducting a week-long campaign that is focused on catching and cracking down on drivers who are using hand-held mobile phones while driving.

As well as the obvious motive to improve safety on the roads now, this latest crackdown is part of a longer term stated aim to make driving distracted “as socially unacceptable as drink driving” according to The National Police Chiefs’ Council.

What Kind Of Crackdown?

This latest crackdown by Police will use dedicated patrols using unmarked vans, helmet cams, high-seated vehicles and high vantage points to catch offending motorists. Police will also be working with paramedics as part of this campaign, and there will be social media videos and messages, warning messages displayed on commuter routes, and schemes enabling “community spotters” to target repeat offenders.

Won’t Work Say Some Critics

Some critics, including family members of those killed by distracted drivers, say that at best motorists may stop using their mobile phones during the crackdown … and then return to their use afterward. Critics have also pointed out that the amount of technology in new cars could also be regarded as a cause of distraction while driving.

31% Still Doing It Says RAC Survey

Driving while using a handheld mobile phone has been illegal in the UK since December 2003 and yet the results of a recent RAC survey show that 31% of motorists said that they had used a handheld mobile phone while driving. What is more alarming and what is one of the main reasons for this week’s police crackdown, is that this is a large increase on the 8% of those recorded in survey 2 years ago as still using a mobile phone while driving.

What Is The Law?

According the UK government website, it is illegal to ride a motorcycle or drive using hand-held phones or similar devices. Many UK drivers may also still not be aware that it is also illegal to use hand-held phones or similar devices if you are stopped at traffic lights or queuing in traffic.

If you are using a hand-held phone or similar device when supervising a learner driver or rider then this is also an offence on UK roads.

Hands-Free OK If Not Thought To Be Distracted

Using hands-free devices, sat navs and 2-way radios when driving / riding is legal, but you can still be stopped by police if they believe that you are distracted by the use of the device and you are therefore not in control of your vehicle.

Big Penalties – Bigger To Come

The normal penalties for a distraction offence due to hand held mobile device use while driving is 3 penalty points on your licence and a fine of £100. For new drivers, the penalty is 6 or more points on the licence. A court visit could also result in fines of up to £1,000 or £2,500 if you drive a bus or goods vehicle.

This latest crackdown comes just ahead of government plans to double fines and points for using a mobile while driving.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

If you and your employees drive to and from work and as part of your work it is essential that a hands-free device is used for any calls, or that calls are only made or received when your vehicle is safely parked. Even checking texts is constitutes a distraction. The results of not heeding the law on this matter are not just the terrible human consequences, but also the potential damage to your business through driving penalties and reputational damage from the local publicity.

BT Launches Competition To Find New Apps and Services For UK Market

BT Launches Competition To Find New Apps and Services For UK Market

Small Businesses and start-ups in the UK will now have their opportunity to pitch ‘Dragon’s Den’ style to BT in a competition, the winners of which could receive expert mentoring as well as seeing their ideas rolled out to BT customers in the UK.

BT say that the object of the competition, run by their Infinity Lab, is intended to find innovations that will help “busy people stay in contact and feel connected to their family, friends and communities”. BT has suggested to potential entrants that the focus for ideas should be very much upon smart devices and apps i.e. something that can be used on the move.

Which Companies Can Enter?

The competition is open to small businesses and start-ups and essentially BT are looking for companies with an early stage product which has innovation at its heart.

What Are The Prizes?

Winners of the competition (of which there could be several) can ultimately expect a commercial partnership for BT to use or sell their new services to its customers. BT has said that this would still involve a (6 month) trial first with its TechHub community. BT has stated that winners of the competition can expect to receive:

  • Mentoring in the form of support from BT research, engineering, commercial and marketing teams, with a view to helping to develop the product or service.
  • Support from BT to evaluate and trial the product or service.
  • Six months’ membership of BT’s TechHub entrepreneur community. This will come with flexible desk space at its main London office and access to events.

How Do You Apply?

Applicants will need to complete an online form to describe their product or service and should also provide a short video about the product or service. BT has said that the video is optional but is ‘strongly advised’.

The submissions will then be reviewed by a team of our product and technology experts, and the shortlisted companies will be called for interview with finalists to present a “Dragons’ Den” style pitch of their idea to BT executives at an event in January 2017. Potential applicants should visit https://www.btplc.com/btinfinitylab/FriendsFamily/index.htm. The closing date for applications is 10th December 2016.

10th Competition

This is the 10th such innovation challenge competition in the last 3 years run by BT’s Infinity Lab and although the programme aims to identify potential innovation partners, BT does not intend to invest or take equity in the applicant companies as part of this process. The previous 9 competitions (launched in partnership with TechHub) are reported to have attracted entries from around the world and winning success stories include ‘SeenIt’ who are now working with BT Sport, and the connected cities winner ‘See.Sense’ which is now in trial with MK Smart.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

For BT, this is clearly a relatively easy and cost effective way to find product and service ideas that could be lucrative in the future, enable them to keep a competitive edge, and help retain and attract customers. For your business, this could be a real and rare opportunity to bring your idea quickly through development to a large existing nationwide customer base with the help and support of a leading company.

Voters Crash New Zealand & Canada Immigration Website

Voters Crash New Zealand & Canada Immigration Website

It appears that some U.S. voters were so horrified by the prospect of living in America with Donald Trump as President that they crashed immigration websites in New Zealand and Canada in their bid to find an alternative safe haven.

Massive Increase in Traffic From The U.S.

After the apparent shock of the Presidential election result, the New Zealand immigration website INZ (immigration.govt.nz) is reported to have received a massive 2,500% increase in traffic in a 24 hour period. For a website that would normally receive 5, 300 visitors in one day, a spike of 56,300 visits was a shock to the website administrators.

As well as taking to the INZ website in huge numbers, U.S. voters also took to the New Zealand’s partner immigration website NZ Now (newzealandnow.govt.nz) in their tens of thousands. According to reports from Forsythe, instead of the website’s normal 3,000 registrations of interest in any 24 hour period, the 24 hour period after the U.S election result attracted a mighty 7,300 registrations interest, the vast majority being from the U.S. The increase in traffic on this immigration website was even more marked with 70,500 people visiting the website in that one day as opposed to the normal daily average of 1,500.

Canada Immigration Website Crashed.

The 24 hour period after Mr Trump’s election victory reportedly brought visitors in such huge numbers to the official immigration website for Canada that it crashed. Most visitors to the website that day were only able to see a ‘This site can’t be reached’ message as Shared Services Canada reportedly worked through the night to put the website back up again.

Signs on Twitter.

The trail left by disgruntled and disillusioned U.S. voters could be seen last Wednesday as many took to Twitter to discuss potentially moving to other countries. Canada and New Zealand were popular suggestions.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

Incidents such as these are indicators of the expected level of change in the country by the citizens themselves, and to UK businesses with U.S. customers, as well as the initial effects of changes in the money markets it is important to keep a close eye on the changing economic environment in the U.S. in the coming months and years.

If you travel to the U.S. for business it may also be important to take note of any changes to immigration and border control rules, as Mr Trump has focused on this area in many of his election messages. Some financial commentators have also warned that Mr Trump’s win could have an effect upon work ‘money purchase’ or ‘defined contribution’ pension schemes because they are linked to stock market performance.

Women in Tech Earn 9% Less Than Men.

Women in Tech Earn 9% Less Than Men.

According to data recently published by ‘Hired’, women working in the technology industry in the UK earn 9% less than men in the same jobs.

Evidence of the Gender Pay Gap.

More evidence of a long-acknowledged gender pay gap in the UK has been highlighted by the ‘Hired’ survey that analysed 10,000 job offers made to 3,000 candidates across 750 companies.

9% less income equates to £5,000 less per year for women, and it is no accident that the findings of the survey were announced two days before the so-called Equal Pay Day. This is the day identified by equal pay charity the Fawcett Society that women will essentially be working for free until the end of the year in relation to the extra pay received by their male counterparts.

Big Gap For Software Engineers.

Those women building a career as a Software Engineer, for example, can expect a pay gap that is significant now but is likely to widen dramatically further down the line. According to the ‘Hired’ survey results, a female Software Engineer will earn 7% less than her male equivalent in the early years. This gap widens to 10% less, two to six years in, beyond which the gap widens to over 30% less. This will see a female Software Engineer’s salary of £53,000 being vastly outstripped by her male equivalent’s salary of £65,000.

Why The Gap in This Industry?

A gender pay gap is unfortunately not unique to the technology industry in the UK. ONS figures released last month  show that across all UK professions, women earn on average 13.9% less than men.

Some technical commentators have suggested that one factor contributing to the gap that has been demonstrated in the ‘Hired’ survey may be the size of the company. Women in companies with between 200 to 1,000 staff tend to be underpaid in relation to male staff members by an average of 17%. This could be because these medium sized companies slip through the gap between the regulation associated with larger companies and the transparency of hiring practices associated with smaller companies.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

The published findings of this report were intended to make employers think about issues of gender bias in their own companies. It will soon be a requirement anyway that employers publish details of their pay gap and this may also be another step towards closing gender inequality gaps in business.

Expert employment commentators suggest that other ways for companies to a move towards a more equal work situation for employees could include creating more quality part-time work, encouraging men to play a greater role in paid and unpaid care work, and making sure that your business at least has an action plan to help address any gender pay gap you may have.

For those women applying for jobs, some of the strongest advice to avoid being the victim of a gender pay gap from the outset is to know their market worth in the interview and job searching process, and to ask for as much as men.

For businesses, it’s a case of trying to reduce genuine inequalities through means such as offering salaries based on up-to-date knowledge of the market and the candidate’s market worth, offering training to help employees to develop greater worth, and conducting regular salary audits to ensure fairness.

UK Surveillance Concerns After Trump Win

UK Surveillance Concerns After Trump Win

Donald Trump’s successful bid to become the next U.S. President has prompted the UK digital rights and freedom group ‘The Open Rights Group’ (ORG) to publicly express fears that UK citizens may now be the subject of greater surveillance.

Link With GCHQ.

One of the key concerns and the foundation for the views expressed by the ORG appears to be the fact that the UK’s GCHQ has been shown (through evidence from WikiLeaks) to carry out work for the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), and that NSA operatives can access GCHQ surveillance programmes. This could, in theory, mean that (based on the more controversial security views expressed by Mr Trump during his election campaign) he could potentially abuse his national security powers.

Integration Fears.

Another key concern expressed by the ORG is which effects the integration of the NSA and GCHQ could have on the UK’s surveillance capabilities, and on the balance of power in the surveillance and intelligence relationship between the U.S and the UK.

It is generally accepted among security and technology commentators that the UK depends heavily upon U.S. technology and data, and as such is the subservient partner. Furthermore, the integration of the NSA and GCHQ could mean that it would become incredibly difficult for the UK to separate its intelligence capabilities from those of the U.S. in future should it need / want / have to at any point.

With separation or staying together, there may also be implications for the UK as regards bulk data collection and surveillance. For example, ORG appears to perceive governments (the U.S. and UK) to prefer to carry out more bulk surveillance, and the UK would be more able (and arguably more likely) to do so with U.S. help and with Mr Trump at the helm.

Prime Minister For More Surveillance.

ORG has also spoken out publicly in the past about the implications of Theresa May being Prime Minister as far as her support for greater surveillance of UK citizens goes. For example, her championing of the Investigatory Powers Bill (also known as the Snooper’s Charter) and her support for the scrapping of the Human Rights Act have attracted warnings of the implications from ORG.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

If greater surveillance by the UK alone or in combination with the U.S. can thwart terrorist attacks or cybercrime, this would, of course, benefit individuals and businesses alike.

Abuse of any powers is, however, a worry. So too is the possibility of the erosion of democracy and freedom of speech. However,  it is still too early to say exactly what path the President-elect Trump will take.

Digital freedom campaigners are warning that the replacement of the Human Rights Act with a weaker UK version, plus the wrong approach to Brexit could have negative implications for our rights as UK citizens, protection, e-privacy, net-neutrality and copyright.

Facebook Kills The Admiral’s Plan

Facebook Kills The Admiral’s Plan

A request by insurance company Admiral to trial a scheme whereby the contents of the Facebook profiles of young drivers would be used in order to judge their safety as drivers (and thereby influence their insurance premiums) has been given the thumbs down by Facebook.

Judged on Posts and Likes.

Admiral’s idea for the trial is reported to have been for the insurance company to look at the posts and likes on a young driver’s Facebook profile and to use them in deciding the level of risk of the driver.

In addition to viewing the details of the driver’s profile, the driver would be asked a series of questions, the answers of which would be used to build a personality profile.

If it was decided from the Facebook and personality profile that the driver’s risk was low, then they would be offered a discount of between 5% and 15% on their car insurance. Admiral would have sought the driver’s permission first to view the Facebook profile.

The trial was aimed at 17 to 21-year-old motorists and would have used an app to offer the quote, and the judgement about the driver’s level of risk would have involved the use of algorithms to judge a driver’s level of organisation.

Reason Why Facebook Said No.

Although Facebook was happy for drivers to use their Facebook accounts to log in to the Admiral app for verification, it was not willing to allow the insurance company to use the details of drivers’ profiles to decide on discount eligibility.

Facebook’s (stated) reason for saying no to what would have been the first trial of its kind in the UK was that the privacy of the people on Facebook must be protected. There may also be an element of needing to protect Facebook’s own reputation.

What Now For Admiral’s Idea?

Although the original scheme was refused (by Facebook at the eleventh hour) drivers will still be able to log in to the Admiral app via Facebook before answering questions from the insurer which could still lead to a discount, but their Facebook profile will not be used to help decide that discount.

Criticism of the Trial.

Popular criticisms of the idea for the trial from tech and consumer rights commentators (who have praised Facebook for saying no) have been that it could make social media users feel inhibited, non-financial factors could unjustly be used to help make financial decisions, and that the algorithms involved could conceivably perpetuate social biases that are based on race, gender, religion or sexuality.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

From a purely business perspective, it makes sense for a company such as an insurer (that has no previous evidence to go on) to try and devise a fast and workable method for attracting young customers. As business people and consumers, however, it could be argued that a scheme of this kind raised ethical questions, and would have set a dangerous precedent had it been given the green light.

For example, what if a private health insurer wanted access to your Facebook profile or even company page in search of details which could show that you have not been living a healthy lifestyle?

The fact that Facebook refused permission for the scheme and received good publicity, and the fact that perceptions of Admiral’s approach to ethics and its company reputation may have suffered some damage with the publicity are also a lesson in how important the protection and projection of sound business ethics are, particularly in this digital age where bad news travels faster than ever before.

Security Fears About Software Than Can Copy Your Voice

Security Fears About Software Than Can Copy Your Voice

After its unveiling in a live demo at the Max Conference San Diego last week, Adobe’s Project VoCo audio / voice manipulation software has been the subject of some concern over its potential for misuse.

What Is Project VoCo?

Project VoCo is an audio editing program that enables you to edit speech as easily as you can text or pictures. This is why it has also been dubbed the “Photoshop of speech”.

How Does It Work?

The program needs around 20 minutes of voice samples from a person. These samples are then broken down by the program into phonemes which are the smallest units of sound in speech. These phonemes are then transcribed, and the voice model is then created.

What’s The Problem?

The potential problem with the program that has caused the voicing of concerns is that the program is so flexible that it could be misused. For example, VoCo allows you to use the same voice model to create completely new recordings. In other words, you can take a recording of a person’s voice and make a new version from it that includes words and phrases the original speaker never used.

Some critics have therefore said that VoCo has the potential to undermine trust in journalism or even pose a security threat. Other critics have suggested that the developers of the program had somehow missed or ignored the ethical dilemmas involved in creating a voice manipulator of this kind.

Some of the main concerns about the capabilities and availability of the program include that:

  • It could mean that digital media may therefore not be able to be used  e.g. by lawyers and journalists, because of doubts about authenticity.
  • It could be used to fool bank security systems where voiceprint verification is being used for customers who phone in.

No Ship Date Announced.

So far, just the demo of VoCo has been shown to the world, and although Adobe are standing by their product for the many positive benefits that it will bring, no ship date has been announced for it and the release date is not imminent.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

As a product that could be potentially used by businesses, VoCo could be a very powerful, useful and value-adding / time saving tool for example when used to fix podcasts, create marketing communications, or even to fix audio book recordings.

Businesses also have the right to feel nervous about how the program could be used in the wrong way e.g. by criminals are part of cyber fraud /cyber attack on the business or on the bank that the business uses.

At present, the Biometrics companies (who are now being used by banks) are re-assuring people by saying that their systems would not be fooled by VoCo. Research is also under way to find a way to enable detection of the use of the software e.g. by some kind of watermark.

Stripe Launches New Payments Apps Directory

Stripe Launches New Payments Apps Directory

Customers of payment services company Stripe are to be given access to a new directory of some 300 compatible apps that can be integrated and used with their existing Stripe services to make more meaningful and value adding use of the data.

Who / What Is Stripe?

Stripe is a San Francisco based company (valued at around $5 billion) who, like Paypal, provide a means for businesses to accept payments online (a payment gateway).

Stripe is reported to be processing billions of dollars a year for thousands of businesses and has received funding to the tune of $300 million from an impressive list of investors which includes Sequoia Capital, Visa, American Express, Peter Thiel, and Elon Musk.

Stripe recently launched the Stripe Connect product in the UK, Ireland and Nordic countries to enable start-ups to receive payments from any country where Stripe is live.

How Stripe’s Service Works.

Adding a few lines of Stripe’s code to their websites enables businesses-to-payment services into their mobile apps and websites.

Two Main Reasons For The Introduction of The Directory.

Tech business commentators have suggested that the 2 main reasons for the introduction of the directory are to increase the ‘barriers to exit’ for existing Stripe customers who start to use and rely upon the new services / apps, and it paves the way for Stripe to develop more business relationships with 3rd party app suppliers.

The listing in Stripe’s directory for the app suppliers is free but the services will depend on each one’s pricing models.

Most Popular Indicated.

Stripe has said that as well as showing customers which apps are compatible with which platform or service, it will also show in the directory which are the most popular integrations, thus making it easier for customers to choose. As an extra (and important) benefit of housing the directory and monitoring which apps are most popular, Stripe will be able to use that information to help shape its own in-house products.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

If you are a Stripe customer, the app database could be a handy source for you to find tools that will enable you to query, analyse and get some more useful insights into your payment data. As such, it could be a way to discover more sources of competitive advantage and add more value to your services.

If you are a customer of another payment processing service, the new app directory from Stripe may be one factor that could help tempt you into considering switching.

New National Cyber Strategy Tough On IT Suppliers

New National Cyber Strategy Tough On IT Suppliers

With most of the media focus in recent weeks being on preventing and retaliating to state-sponsored cyber attacks, one key point about the UK’s National Cyber Security Strategy (NCSS) that has been largely ignored is how tough it may be on UK IT Suppliers.

What Is The NCCS?

As the name suggests, The National Cyber Security Strategy (NCSS) is a (five-year) plan for defending the UK’s systems and infrastructure, for deterring adversaries, and for developing a whole-society capability. The strategy, recently outlined in a speech at the recent ‘Future Decoded’ conference by UK Chancellor Philip Hammond, will be carried out with the help of a £1.9bn budget which was allocated by the previous Chancellor George Osborne.

The Impact For IT Suppliers.

In the Chancellor’s speech outlining the new strategy, although he focused on responding and retaliating to cyber attacks, some key issues relating to policy changes and the impact that the strategy will have on IT Suppliers were overlooked. These will mean that:

  • Suppliers to the public sector will have to be subject more stringent checks and regulation to preserve cyber security. This looks likely to mean that if products or services are supplied to the government, it is the responsibility of the supplier to make sure that they already have high-level security features included in them. This means that the government’s job as the customer will be to remove those security features if they don’t believe they need them.With this new model, rather than the customer adding more security protection after receiving the products / services, it is the responsibility of the supplier to ensure that security features are maximised before delivery.
  • There will be a rating system for suppliers, the results of which will be made public. This means that public sector companies and members of the public will have a means with which to judge the supplier in terms of how secure their products and services are, and this could  impact upon future business for that supplier.
  • The government also looks likely to grant itself the power to test a supplier’s cyber security measures, and to force them to make changes to improve them where it thinks they are needed.
  • Suppliers will be made liable for cyber breaches that affect public services.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

Although the government appears to believe that there will be a general benefit from cyber security regulations in the UK (being seen as higher in the UK than in other comparative advanced economies), if you are an IT supplier to the public sector this new national strategy may dramatically affect you.

It will mean higher costs and greater risks and responsibilities, plus it could mean that smaller suppliers may find it harder to compete. The effects of a poor rating could also mean that future business is affected and this could cause greater anxiety for suppliers and put more pressure on them.

Artificial Intelligence Being Added to Microsoft Office 365

Artificial Intelligence Being Added to Microsoft Office 365

Microsoft has added a new toolkit called ‘Microsoft Team’ to Office 365. The new add-on will use intelligent services in an attempt to reinvent workplace communications and collaboration.

What Is ‘Microsoft Team’?

The Microsoft Team add-on is a reported to be a chat-based workspace that could enhance and improve teamwork within organisations. It uses video, voice communications, and threaded conversations. Team members can create ‘channels’ in order to organise conversations by topic. These channels can then be customised using the ‘Tabs’ feature. ‘Tabs’ allow participants to easily access frequently used documents and applications.

This new add-on to 365 is reported to work with Word, Excel, PowerPoint, SharePoint, OneNote, Planner, Power BI and Delve.

Microsoft Team is being seen as a way of taking greater account of what have become modern collaborative working practices, thereby making the Office 365 system more relevant and more productive for users.

The A.I. Element.

One of the most notable parts of this add-on is its incorporation of an artificial intelligence aspect.

This is the result of a push by Microsoft over several years to somehow deploy A.I. in their products to help users to manage modern digital communications workloads. Many people will already be familiar for example with the A.I. enabled Cortana at the front end of Windows 10.

The A.I. features in this Microsoft Team add-on come from Microsoft’s research lab projects such as natural language processing and deep learning. Microsoft Team uses a Bot framework whereby developers can tap into a collection A.I. components and apps and with just a few lines of code can use them within their Team’s environment. This could, for example,  involve being able to put a number of specialist A.I. algorithms to work.

According to Microsoft, the outcome of being able to use A.I. elements in this practical way should be to empower the collaborative team to augment their abilities and therefore achieve more. An application programming interface (API) and a Connector model have also been built-in to Microsoft Team to enable developers to add feeds to it. These feeds could be from services like Twitter, Facebook etc.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

If you are looking for ways in which to get more leverage from collaborative working and to find ways to improve and enrich the experience of team working this new add-on to Office 365 could be a relatively easy way to help your business achieve that. Teams working remotely may find this especially useful.

The fact that it also gives access to A.I. elements means that it could have advantages over other collaborative systems and these could help translate into areas of competitive advantage.

If nothing else, it’s an opportunity to re-explore all the benefits of Office (beyond just Excel and Word)  which you may not be using.