Archive for April, 2008

Guided by voices

21 April 2008

A press release rehashed as a news article on the BBC website today – “Lie detector software saves ?500k” states:

Lie detector software has saved a south London council almost ?500,000 it was losing through benefit fraud.

During a phone call Voice Risk Analysis (VRA) software analyses minute changes in the voices of those claiming benefits to see if they are lying.
[...]
During the pilot, almost 1,700 people were assessed, of which 377 had their benefits stopped or decreased.

For starters, VRA isn’t a lie detector – there is no such thing. Even the polygraph isn’t really a lie detector, and in any case evidence from either machine cannot be used in court. The success rate of VRA itself is not particularly encouraging:

What we see here is that 198 true statements were coreectly determined to be true but 118 true statements were incorrectly determined to be false. We also see that 127 false statements were correctly determined to be false but 73 false statements were incorrectly determined to be true. In short, 37.3 per cent of the true statements were adjudged to be false and 36.5 per cent of the false statements were adjudged to be true.

While a strong case can be made for using them as one of many tools in an assessment process, with due care and attention taken as regards their fallibility and the risks involved, there’s nothing to suggest this is the case here, particularly given how the council is trumpeting it. Processing 1,700 cases in five months (17 or so per working day) is pretty swift work, to boot.

This is further exacerbated by the numbers – the false positive and false negative rates are similar, but assuming the vast majority of claims are genuine, then there are going to be more genuine claimants are going to be denied benefits they deserve, than bogus ones who get away scot-free.

The only remaining thing in their favour is they can be a deterrent – albeit a fairly expensive one – and that their ongoing usefulness as a deterrent depends on how they are used. Used carefully and judiciously these are a good idea; used as a quick fix to plough through thousands of claims and they quickly become ineffective and even oppressive.


All in the database

20 April 2008

What’s creepier in this TV Licensing advert – the authoritarian insistence of the message that we’re all being watched for our own good, or its soft underbelly – the complete and unremitting faith in “the database”, in yielding awe of its panopticon abilities?

Addendum: And I say this as someone who is quite fond of public service broadcasting, just not how it’s enforced…


Twitter’s success, and how to make money off it without being evil

19 April 2008

You know, this is the first weekend in forever where I’m able to relax. I’ve been spending most of today catching up on some RSS feeds, resetting unread ones and starting afresh, and trying to get through an enormous pile of unread copies of Private Eye. None of this has anything to do with the following post.

Twitter appears to be flavour of the month – it got on the front page of the Guardian and it’s being used by both Downing Street and skin cancer awareness (leading to a somewhat disconcerting email alerts). It even has genuinely useful purposes – i.e. keeping up with the latest Arsenal scores. The tipping point isn’t just being covered in the mainstream press – lately I’ve noticed a huge spike in people following me, some who look like interesting human beings and others who look like spammers (I now have the “x is following you on Twitter” turned off, so if you’re genuinely think you have something interesting for me use the @qwghlm feature instead).

I’ve been on Twitter for aaages (since December 2006, which puts me around the 80,000th user mark – ooh get me), more than long enough to get a feel for the place. The BBC gets it half-right in the secret of its success:

The appeal of Twitter – and the thing that has persuaded me to spend more time there than on other social networks – is that it distills the essence of Facebook and chucks away most of the annoying stuff. I’d long tired of all the poking, vampires, SuperWalls and countless applications which cluttered up what was once a clean interface. What I still value is the status updates which allow me to see at a glance what my friends – and distant acquaintances – are up to, and that is what I get on Twitter.

It’s not just simplicity of reading and navigation though – it’s about simplicity of expression. My sixteen months on Twitter has covered a torrid breakup, various bouts of sadness and happiness that followed it, a Glastonbury festival and two holidays and trips down the pub too numerous to contemplate. It’s so simple I can use it to talk about these and more – every little jokes, puns, moans, observation, venting of steam etc. without the fiddly complicatedness of Facebook’s status system (even after they dropped the “is” last year, it’s still rubbish) and by a variety of means (web, IM, phone, special apps such as Twhirl).

The BBC article has missed out on this crucial element – Twitter would be nothing if people didn’t make stuff on it. It’s the fact it’s useful (and a little bit fun) that’s the key to success. People actually reading your Tweets – that’s an extra bonus as far as I’m concerned. Just like the vast majority of the blogs out there, most Twitter streams are read by handfuls of people (and mine is no exception). This makes it difficult to make money out of the entire operation – as the Beeb also points out:

Apparently Twitter’s managers are indeed wary about antagonising users with advertising, and are talking instead of marketing premium accounts to businesses who would use it to communicate with Twitterers like me. I don’t think that is going to be any more attractive to the community. I shared a communal cold shiver with a fellow technology journalist the other day when a PR firm started “following” both of us on Twitter. It’s the eternal problem for social networking entrepreneurs. The minute they start to try to “monetise” their users, they risk eroding the very thing that this community values – clean, noise-free communication.

I am currently entertaining the view that Twitter’s creators didn’t design to make money – at least, that is, they didn’t do it to make money on an ongoing basis. They would instead build it up & flog it to someone (ad network, mobile services provider, publishing service or Google) and leave the how-to-make-money problem for them to solve.

As for how to make regular money from Twitter – if such a thing is really necessary – the premium model idea isn’t a bad starting point. Some blogs carry ads & a few are entirely funded by them or sponsored placement; why not the same with Twitter streams? Charging Twitter subscribers for the capability to monetise their own streams by including ads, sponsored & branded posts etc. means the balance between keeping things genuine and being entirely commercial becomes a problem for the content provider, not Twitter as a whole. Ad-filled or plain lousy commercial Twitter streams will probably be ignored, the ones that get it right subscribed to & read. A far better solution than mindlessly dispensing ads to all.

This should really be on the firm’s blog rather than my own but fuck it, I thought of this in my own time on a Saturday so here it goes instead. :)


A quick del.icio.us lifehack

3 April 2008

I love del.icio.us. I’ve been using it since, er, February 2005 and in that time I’ve built up (at latest count) 2,256 bookmarks. Only problem is that I tag a lot and have eclectic taste, so I have built up a stonking huge number of tags. So many so that that when I load my bookmarks page, there is a huge lag as it builds the list of tags in the sidebar (especially as it uses some JavaScript which knackers Firefox on my elderly laptop).

You can reduce the minimum number of posts a tag needs to have been on to be displayed, to 2 or 5, but even this isn’t that helpful – with the vast number of tags I have, it still takes too long. But then idly just now, I was looking at the URL that tells del.icio.us to set this number, and realised it’s just:

http://del.icio.us/Qwghlm?setminposts=5

Can I just hack the URL to make whatever threshold I like then? It turns out I can, so:

http://del.icio.us/Qwghlm?setminposts=20

now displays only the tags I (and anyone else) have used, on 20+ posts. Which is much more manageable and quick to load. Hurrah!