Monday, 28 February 2011

Why on earth would you want a DAB radio?

I've been gadget shopping. You'd probably guess that I quite like gadget shopping, and you'd be right.

Throwing music around my old flat was pretty easy. There was a CD player in the bedroom and the radio stations that come with Freeview TV in the living room. The flat was so small that if you weren't in one of those two rooms, you just turned up the volume.

With a bit more space in my new place, I've got a new problem. There's loads of music stored on my PC in the office, the Freeview TV is downstairs and you can't get Absolute Radio on FM in the North of England. My bedroom had become a music free zone (unless I want to listen to Real Radio and I really, really don't.)

A new gadget for bedroom music then. Miss Data Monkey (who isn't really a data monkey at all) said we should buy a DAB radio. Maybe, but you don't dive head first into a gadget purchase just because the BBC say it's what you need. At the very least, there are some reviews to be read on cnet first.

DAB feels like a technological backwater to me and take-up has stalled at around 25% of listening, which is nowhere near high enough for any kind of permanent switch-over.

DAB technology is outdated already and it's barely got started yet. Older receivers can't handle DAB+, so you'll need to upgrade (again) in the same way that your Freeview TV box won't do the new HD broadcasts. We've also picked a different digital system to the rest of Europe - which was smart - so your new car's probably not going to get a UK DAB radio ever, except as a paid-for extra.

My major problem with DAB though it that it doesn't offer much that you can't already do quite satisfactorily on FM. There aren't that many additional channels and just to pick up Absolute Radio outside the M25, it's a pretty expensive box, no matter how funny Frank Skinner is on a Saturday morning.

Nice DAB radios go for £150 - £200 (I know there are cheap ones but what the hell, I like my music) so I set that as a budget limit to see what I could do that's better than DAB. Having made my choice, I can't see why anyone would buy a 'good' DAB radio. A £40-£50 one to get a few extra channels in the kitchen maybe, but there's a miles better solution if you're spending a reasonable amount of cash.

You've got always-on broadband at home and pretty much every radio station in the world broadcasts online.

You've got lots of music on your PC.

You quite like LastFM.

You might even have a Spotify subscription.

You need one of these. Or the Squeezebox Touch, which is what I went for.It's all of your music in a wireless box, plus all of the radio stations on the web (which pretty much means ALL of the radio stations) plus if you like music streaming, everything you can access through Spotify, LastFM and Napster too*.

The great thing is that you don't need to be a tech wizard to set it up. You give it your wireless password and an email address for the obligatory Squeezebox account and then it just works. You've got a little touch-screen by your bedside with more music on it that you know what to do with. I love it. My girlfriend loves it too, which is important because it means it's not just for blokes who like gadgety toys.

Sorry DAB, you're dead in the water; a solution looking for a problem and only a partial solution to getting more music into more rooms at home. On the move, there are just too many FM radios in circulation for a DAB switch-over - in your car and even in your brand new state of the art mobile phone. They're still being built and by the time they all run out, mobile data will be fast enough that you'll be able to stream wirelessly on the go too.

Time to stop spending BBC licence fee money on ever bigger campaigns in support of DAB and accept that it's already obsolete. The good news is that - as ever - the technology that's replaced it is better, more flexible, just as easy to use and the price is dropping.

* Paid only for Spotify and Napster and if you want to pay, choose Spotify. Napster downloads have been hobbled for the past year or so and it's now an overpriced piece of junk.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

You wouldn't sell any other product like this

I've got a simple problem that lots of other people in marketing analysis have got. It's 2011 and we're still mailing spreadsheet reports to clients when they could be logging onto a web page and viewing the report there. No versioning problems, auto-updating, access on-demand, flexible and less intimidating than a spreadsheet for non-technical users. I want a piece of dashboarding and data visualisation software, but which one?

Lots of software vendors have worked out that there's a market and made a product. There are loads of solutions, from huge database engines powered by SAP that could handle a global airline's booking system, down to Excel Services from Microsoft that gives you a quick way to publish a spreadsheet to Sharepoint.

They all have one thing in common though. Nobody will tell you what any of them cost and you'll be very, very lucky to get a demo copy without talking to a sales rep.

I've been talking to a Spotfire rep this morning. When I said I was looking at making a small number of dashboards that external clients could access and I'd like a ball-park figure for how much the licences might cost, he giggled and said it wasn't that simple. How can it not be that simple? I want to know if I can afford your software - one dashboard builder and a server licence - yes or no?

Let's draw a quick analogy. You go into a furniture shop to look for a new sofa - you've heard they might have nice sofas but that's all you know.

When you get into the shop, there are loads of posters and pamphlets about how great the furniture is, but no prices and no products on the shop floor. A salesman says he can take you into another part of the shop where if you're really lucky, you can actually try sitting on a sofa, but only if you can tell him based on the leaflets exactly which one you'd like to see. He'll also need your name, address, phone number, email address and a short explanation of why you're interested in his sofas before he'll let you see any.

A little bit annoyed, you point out a picture and ask how much that one is, so you can know if it's in your price range before you try it.

"Well that depends," says the salesman. "How many people will sit on it?"

You don't know for sure and can't see why it's important, but hazard a guess at you and your family definitely, plus some friends when they come to visit.

Now he wants to know if more than one person will want to sit on it at the same time and whether your friends all live with each other, because if they visit you from different houses, then it will cost more.

You slap the salesman as he adds that you can't actually buy a sofa, you can only licence one. You don't get anything new after the sofa arrives, but that's just the way it works - next year you have to pay to keep sitting on it.

Oh and by the way, if some visiting relatves stop by unexpectedly this year and want to sit down, you'll owe the shop more money.

Analogy stretched far enough I think, but that's what this morning at work's been like. I don't mind bulk discounts and negotiating prices, but this is ridiculous.

I'm happy to recommend any of the multiple bits of software that will do a job for us, if I can find a developer who will give me a time-limited trial copy without jumping through sales hoops and a straight price for a software licence. No wonder so many people just hire a few few Adobe Flex developers and do it themselves - at least you know what you'll have to pay out in wages and anything they build is yours forever.

Since SAP bought Xcelsius and ruined it, there's a huge gap in the market for a cheap, simple way to publish Excel dashboards to the web. You used to be able to buy Xcelsius with a straight price per copy and do whatever you liked with it. Surely that's not too much to ask.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Android essentials

Four months and a lot of playing into Android phone ownership, here's a list of the most useful apps I've found. Tools and toys to delight and entertain...

I've skipped the many (many, many) weather apps and the fun stuff like Google Sky, which is amazing once and then you'll only ever run it again to show off your phone. I'm going to save the games for another day too. These apps are less glamorous, but they're must-haves and they're all free!

Advanced Task Killer
Cleans up all the unwanted apps your phone is running in the background to speed it up and save battery. You choose the apps it's not allowed to kill.

Alarm Droid
Fantastic alarm scheduler that wakes you up with music, says hello and then reads you the weather forecast. Multiple alarms and only on the days you choose.

Appbrain App Market
Want to know about all the best apps as they come out? You need this. The Google Market just recommends the same apps forever.

Astro File manager
A file manager and a good one. Does what it's supposed to. online storage on your phone. I like and I like my phone so it's a winner.

Never lose a note or a handout again. Brilliant

Dolphin Browser
Whatever internet browser your phone came with, this is better.

Google Earth
You know what this is already. It's very, very nearly as good on your phone.

Gallery Map
Photos you take on your phone get geotagged with the location where you took them, so of course you'll need them nicely plotted on a map! Why are there so few gallery apps on Android? The HTC standard gallery is functional but not very pretty.

Send anybody you like (via phone or email) a link to a web page with a live updating map of exactly where you are. Works only for as long as you specify and then stops.

GPS Wifi
Turns your wireless on and off depending on where you are, to save battery. If you're out and about away from your broadband, the app turns it off.

Guardian Anywhere
Dowloads the Guardian newspaper every morning for you to read later. Or you could pay Rupert Murdoch for The Daily.

Journey Pro
Fantastic public transport journey planner. You should get Google Maps and Navigation too, but you knew that.

A mapping tool that lets you flick between different providers' maps (Google, Microsoft etc.) and makes waypoints really nice and easy to store and share.

Picasa Tool
I kind of assumed Android would interface on its own with Google's photo storage. This fixes it.

Silent Time Lite
Puts your phone on silent at times you specify. No text message wake up calls at 4am.

Soccer Scores
Best footie scores and league tables app I've found.

Notes , to-do lists and much more. If they add handwriting recognition for uploads then it will be perfect.

You need it for the in-car mode speech recognition. It's genius.

Volume Ace Free
Why is it so complicated to put an Android phone on silent? Now it isn't.

There you go, now you can save loads of searching time, install those apps and spend the rest of the evening playing Angry Birds.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Economics with real people in it

Economists (not econometricians, actual economists who study the economy) like to talk about the world in a very abstract way. Even saying "The Economy", implies that it's a thing on its own, rather than the total of lots of people working at their jobs, and then using the money they make to buy food and iPhones.

Classical economic theory is full of abstract summaries that try their very best to ignore that they're dealing with real people. Economic Rational Man, the foundation of so much economic theory is essentially an assumption that people will behave like economists want them to, rather than as they actually do.

So here's a small attempt to inject some humanity into the ISLM model (which has been hanging around since 1936.) What happens when we temporarily* depart from that happy little cross in the middle, where we're supposed to be? If you haven't studied economics, don't worry. LM is the money market and IS is the bit of the economy that actually makes things and all you need to know is that economists love a cross on a chart with a list of good reasons why things will find their way to the middle of the cross on their own, if politicians don't fiddle with them.

* It's always a temporary departure, but economists are very good at avoiding questions about how long temporarily is. As in "How long is this temporary 15% unemployment going to last, before the free market kicks in a re-stabilises everything?"

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Probably the best strategy in the world

Neil Perkin over at Only Dead Fish has written a nice piece on new measurement techniques and predictive markets. It's an area of marketing measurement that I find fascinating, even if so far I've seen very few real world marketing applications.

Prediction markets are games where you trade shares in future events. The Hollywood Stock Exchange is a famous example, where you 'bet' on the audience that films will achieve at the box office. The idea is that people (on average, in large numbers) are quite good at guessing what other people will do and the outcome of future events. Running a survey and asking people if they plan to see an upcoming film at the cinema is - runs the theory - less accurate than asking those same people whether they think lots of other people will watch it.

In one respect, it's easy to see that the theory works. In horseracing, horses become favourites because people bet that they're going to win and very often the favourite does win. Odds on betfair are effectively the punters' averaged view of what they think is going to happen in future. Websites like Political Betting take those market odds and use them as a prediction tool for election outcomes or how long the current Prime Minister will last.

If you fancy reading a bit more and playing with some toys, then Inkling is a good place to start.

The advertising applications of prediction markets are exciting. Instead of a focus group asking people if they like a new product, you could ask a sample of respondents if they think other people will buy it. Want to know which mobile phone platform will dominate in five years? Get people to bet on it. Don't ask people if they like your creative, ask whether they think it will be popular.

In terms of their output, prediction markets have some similarities to another research technique that I'm excited about; agent-based modelling. It's a bottom-up approach to modelling where you create an artificial simulated market that contains individuals, give them some rules and then see how they behave. You might set up a simulation for a new product launch and then model how shoppers trial and adopt the product as they are exposed to advertising messages. The crucial difference to top-down modelling where you analyse past sales is that the simulated individuals in an agent-based model have an element of randomness in their decision making - they don't necessarily do the same thing every time you run the simulation.

These two new techniques are similar in that their output tries to account for randomness. You don't get a single answer and in that, they're much more like reality than a lot of the techniques we use right now. What you get are predicted likelihoods that rank possibilities of things that might happen.

Think about what that means for a minute. An analyst can predict the best strategy for launching a brand and that 70% of the time in simulations, sales exceeded the target. It's the best strategy, but even in the simulation it often doesn't work. We can tune the strategy to improve our chances, but in the end, randomness in the model means we might fail even though our strategy was a good one.

Weather forecasters often give us predictions this way - they'll say that there's only a 20-30% chance of rain, so you get annoyed when you turn up for your meeting without an umbrella and soaking wet. The forecaster didn't say it wouldn't rain though, so it's your fault really - he said it probably wouldn't rain and you chose to risk it.

I'm incredibly excited about these emerging techniques, but they need some new thinking on the analyst's and on the decision maker's side. We analysts need to work out how to apply new predictive techniques to marketing. Marketers need to recognise that they're going to get some extra information on which to base a decision and not the perfect answer.

That's actually the way that analytics should always have worked, but both sides too often like to pretend otherwise.

If you ask for randomness to be included in marketing analysis, then you're going to get answers that far more often include the word 'probably'.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Same game, same rules

Facebook's been tagged with a $60bn valuation says The Register.

That is frankly mental. Facebook may be sweeping all before it, but we've seen this before with AOL and MySpace; there's nothing to stop a user-base migrating very, very quickly to the Next Big Thing. I'm convinced that all it took to set Facebook on the path to riches is that it made building your network much easier than MySpace (that and it didn't look like a car crash in an html factory.) On the web, you're clever, then you grow, then you get big, then you get slow and then you die.

Facebook doesn't do anything other than connect you to people. Once you're connected, then what? Share pictures? There are better solutions. Share video? Again, there are much better providers. Send email, when there's gmail instead? Please. Chuck sheep at your friends? Well ok, but $60bn for an airborne sheep assault is still madness.

This is the same old boom and crash game we've seen before. There's no way city analysts believe that Facebook is worth $60bn either but the game is reverse pass the parcel - keep playing and watch the market rise, but try to make sure you're not holding any shares when the music stops. It will keep happening, in web bubbles just like housing, until we change the rules.

I can't help feeling, like a few other commentators, that this valuation is less a sign of Facebook in rude health and more a pointer towards its employees thinking of cashing out. A precursor to decline.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Evidence and Satire

Wired is reporting that James Randi has offered a $1m prize to anybody who can prove via a double blind test that homeopathy actually works.

He's had a long standing similar prize for anyone who can provide incontravertible proof that they have a 'paranormal ability', which has been untroubled by psychics in the US who seem to mostly avoid submitting to a test. Maybe they know in advance what the result will be...

It's a good stunt, but he's preaching to the converted. Maybe he'll persuade a few people who are using homeopathic remedies and don't know how they're made, but anybody who does know what's in a homeopathic remedy* and still pays for it isn't going to be inconvenienced by 'facts' or 'proof'. They're very likely to be the sort of person who when they say 'facts' or 'proof', you can hear the inverted commas.

If you can't persuade with evidence, hopefully you can still have a little fun though. I love this from Tim Minchin. His satire is as hard hitting as a $1m bet, which homeopathists will studiously avoid and it's a hell of a lot more fun. Richard Dawkins take note: You might be right, but for God's sake lighten up. Or should that be for science's sake?

You know what they call alternative medicine that’s been proved to work? Medicine. Enjoy.

* Water. Or if you're a homeopathist, water with fond memories of other substances.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

An electronic notepad. Finally!

Paper notes, notepads and hand-outs are properly annoying. It's my own fault for being disorganised, but I lose them, leave them at home and I'm convinced there's a troll under my desk who survives on a paper diet. It's the only sensible explanation for where all my handwritten notes could have been going.

I'm also a bit of a gadget fan and keep electronic files pretty well organised, so ever since my Palm Pilot was retired years ago, I've been waiting for someone to produce a working electronic notepad. Nothing as sophisticated (or expensive) as an iPad, just an electronic version of a day-book to scribble on , save the notes and email them occasionally

Microsoft looked like they were on the right lines with the Courier, but then they dumped it. Maybe everybody at Redmond is programming as fast as they can to stop Hotmail falling over again and there's no room for good ideas. Who knows?

Anyway, this week I've found the solution and it's brilliant.

For this recipe, you will need.

One Android mobile phone (free-ish.) Apparently iPhones work too.

A Google Docs account (free)

A copy of CamScanner (free)

You write your notes on anything you like - a notepad or just a scrap of A4 nicked from the printer and then use CamScanner to photograph them. It optimises the pictures, crops them, corrects the perspective if you weren't photographing the paper quite straight and then turns them into PDFs.

Now you may lose the paper, or feed it to your hungry under-desk troll.

Upload a PDF to Google Docs - straight from CamScanner - and Google will do clever things with optical character recognition (ocr) to make the content in it is searchable. Genius.

Edit: It's not actually quite that clever (yet.) You can convert to a Google Doc and Google will try to "read" your upload and re-write the text for you. Surely if you can do that then search by content and finding the original document can't be far away though. Evernote can do it.

Now you've got a Google Docs account with all of your scribbles in it, plus copies of all the bits of paper colleagues insist on giving you at meetings. All searchable and stored, safe and sound. You just have to remember your password...

CamScanner needs a copy of your Google login details to do the upload, which I wasn't entirely happy about. It promises to play nicely with them but my main Google account is pretty much indispensible and I'm not giving the login to an app store download, so I've created another one for the notes. You can always share docs between the two.

A bit of context

The UK police have launched a new website this week, which allows you to look up crime statistics at street level. The figures have been available for neighbourhoods for a while but this level of detail is new and now that the site is back up again, good fun to play with.

The methodology and lack of data history have been criticised. As always with a database this big, looking at the outliers doesn't find you interesting facts (much to the newspapers' annoyance) it finds you anomalies in the data. In this case, the 'most dangerous places in Britain' are streets where the postcode is used as a quick location to log all of the crime that happens in a city centre. It's not that 500 people a month are arrested on the same small street for being drunk and disorderly, just that the police need a postcode for their database, so they use that one.

I've recently moved house, up to my exciting new econometrics job in Leeds, so looked up my new neighbourhood.

Wow. It seemed like such a nice, friendly, quiet little town! Now I can see that just in the last month there have been assaults, burglary, theft from cars... I'm scared.

What about my old address in SE London? I lived there for five years and never had a problem (except for a chav nicking my satnav, but I'm an idiot for leaving it on display in the car.)

Suddenly I feel safer in my new home!

I'm sure a policeman would have looked at the Mirfield statistics and pictured a fairly safe little town. I'm not an expert though and any number above zero looks like a crime hotspot.

If you're producing a dashboard for a non-expert audience - whether it's showing crime or click through rates - then context is essential. Is the number you're looking at good? Bad? Indifferent? The old neighbourhood level mapping did give context and in that very important way was the superior tool.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

A belated job update

So the break from econometrics didn't last very long and this blog's going to be getting livelier again... I've made the break from London and am building an econometrics capability for Brilliant Media, based in Leeds.

We're a smaller agency than the big London networks, but the largest independent in the UK and I'm really excited about the challenge. It's good to be back!

It will be nice to leave London behind too. The last twelve years have been great, but it was long past time to go. I'm not a city boy, or one of those Londoners who thinks maps of anywhere North of the Watford Gap just say "here be dragons" and have pictures of ships falling off the edge of the world. It's gorgeous up here.

If you'd like to talk about econometrics, please get in touch, I'd love to hear from you. And if you're looking for a 1.5 bedroomed flat in SE London with a great garden, then I'd love to hear from you even more...

Thanks for reading (hopefully one or two people are still reading) and stay tuned for a Lazarus-like resurrection of Wallpapering Fog.