Like many San Franciscans, overpriced coffee is a considerable portion of my weekly budget. One day in Soma, the industrial district home to many start-ups, I came across a flier advertising a free gift card to Philz, a nearby coffee shop. All that was required was to show up for service at a local church called Epic. I hadn’t been to church in months, and decided to give it a try.
The Bay Area has never been perceived as religious: a 2012 Gallup poll found that fewer than a quarter of residents identify as “very religious” (defined as going to church weekly), as opposed to 40% of the nation as a whole. High salaries have drawn droves of well-educated millennials to the booming tech sector, which correlates with lower religious sentiment. So far afield from the Bible belt, the region is in fact seen as hospitable to all forms of old testament abominations: fornication, paganism – even sodomy.
If what we watch is a touchy subject, what we buy is even more intimate and revealing. Programs like Facebook Beacon, designed to advertise users’ recent purchases to their friends, have been widely reviled. But the study, published today in Science, isn’t about personal sharing. It’s based on testing what the researchers call unicity: the odds that if you know fragments of a person’s shopping history, you can match them against a much larger amount of data, uncovering everything else they’ve bought. As it turns out, those odds are very high.
Our democracy relies on the quality of data in the public domain, and the public’s trust in it. To maintain public trust in statistics, we need to end the practice of pre-release access whereby some people in government see statistics before the public. The independent UK Statistics Authority should keep playing a key role in public policy, and it should continue to withdraw the designation of ‘National Statistic’ from any numbers that are not of high enough quality. Sir Andrew Dilnot should continue to intervene when politicians misuse statistics. And to build the public’s trust around use of their data, the independent Information Commissioner’s Office should be better resourced, with a sustainable funding base and greater powers to audit compliance and punish bad practices.
Government has made a start in opening up its data, but there is more to be done in order to become transparent and encourage innovation. We look to the government to open up addressing and geospatial data as the core reference data upon which society depends, and also act as a catalyst to release economic value from other open datasets.
For much of the last century, the United States led the world in technological innovation—a position it owed in part to well-designed procurement programs at the Defense Department and NASA. During the 1940s, for example, the Pentagon funded the construction of the first general-purpose computer, designed initially to calculate artillery-firing tables for the U.S. Army. Two decades later, it developed the data communications network known as the ARPANET, a precursor to the Internet. Yet not since the 1980s have government contracts helped generate any major new technologies, despite large increases in funding for defense-related R & D. One major culprit was a shift to procurement efforts that benefit traditional defense contractors while shutting out start-ups.
Bad procurement policy is just one reason the United States has begun to lose its technological edge. Indeed, the multibillion-dollar valuations in Silicon Valley have obscured underlying problems in the way the United States develops and adopts technology. An increase in patent litigation, for example, has reduced venture capital financing and R & D investment for small firms, and strict employment regulations have strengthened large employers and prevented the spread of knowledge and skills across the industry. Although the United States remains innovative, government policies have, across the board, increasingly favored powerful interest groups at the expense of promising young start-ups, stifling technological innovation.?
A gorgeous January afternoon.
Chances are that you’ve heard of bitcoin, the digital currency that many predict will revolutionize payments – or prove to be a massive fraud – depending on what you read. Bitcoin is an application that runs on the Blockchain, which is ultimately a more interesting and profound innovation.
The Blockchain is a secure transaction ledger database that is shared by all parties participating in an established, distributed network of computers. It records and stores every transaction that occurs in the network, essentially eliminating the need for “trusted” third parties such as payment processors. Blockchain proponents often describe the innovation as a “transfer of trust in a trustless world,” referring to the fact that the entities participating in a transaction are not necessarily known to each other yet they exchange value with surety and no third-party validation. For this reason, the Blockchain is a potential game changer.
In 2008, Satoshi Nakamoto, the pseudonymous person or group of people credited with developing bitcoin, released a whitepaper describing the software protocol. Since then, the network has grown and bitcoin
Inside the cloud that is perpetually draped over the small town of San Juan Yaee, Oaxaca, Raúl Hernández Santiago crouches down on the roof of the town hall and starts drilling. Men wearing rain gear of various impermeabilities cluster above him, holding a 4-meter-tall tower in place. Braided wires trail from four small circles welded near its midpoint; eventually those will be bolted or tied down in order to hold the tower steady during the frequent storms that roll through this part of Mexico’s Sierra de Juárez mountains. They don’t want it falling over every time it rains. Ninety thousand of the town’s pesos—a bit over $6,000—are invested in the equipment lashed to the top of the tower, in a town where many residents get by on subsistence agriculture.
The tower—which Hernández, Yaee’s blacksmith, welded together out of scrap metal just a few hours earlier—is the backbone of Yaee’s first cellular network. The 90,000 pesos come in the form of two antennas and an open-source base station from a Canadian company called NuRAN. Once Hernández and company get the tower installed and the network online, Yaee’s 500 citizens will, for the first time, be able to make cell phone calls from home, and for cheaper rates than almost anywhere else in Mexico.
It is the continent’s favourite hobby, and even the European Parliament cannot resist: having a pop at the world’s biggest search engine. In a recent and largely symbolic vote, representatives urged that Google search should be separated from its other services — demanding, in essence, that the company be broken up.
This would benefit Google’s detractors but not, alas, European citizens. Search, like the social networking sector dominated by Facebook, appears to be a natural monopoly. The more Google knows about each query — who is making it, where and why — the more relevant its results become. A company that has organised, say, 90 per cent of the world’s information would naturally do better than a company holding just one-tenth of that information.
But search is only a part of Google’s sprawling portfolio. Smart thermostats and self-driving cars are information businesses, too. Both draw on Google’s bottomless reservoirs of data, sensors such as those embedded in hardware, and algorithms. All feed off each other.