Saturday, 31 January 2009

On the record, off the record

It's a bit unclear at Davos when a session is on the record and when it's off the record. In years gone by (I am told) part of the magic of Davos was the opportunity to hear the thoughts of global leaders off the record. But in the digital age of bloggers, twitter and YouTube the dividing line is less clear. And I think that is a good thing. Davos is much more transparent now.

The place is awash with bloggers and "tweeters". Folk like the legendary Michael Arrington and Robert Scoble, Loic Le Meur of France and Richard Muirhead of Tideway in the UK broadcast continuous updates to their twitter followers running in to the tens of thousands around the world.

However, sometimes you get caught out. I gave a presentation on the emergence of the semantic web as the next generation of the web, and to grab the audiences attention and make the point that this shift to the semantic web is a quiet yet incredibly powerful revolution I started off by performing a bit of Tai Chi. Little did I know that moments later it would appear on YouTube (cringe).

Some old campaigners are far more astute. At yesterday's British Business Leaders lunch, Lord Mandelson was told that it was being held under the Chatham House Rule. Looking around and spying a few high profile journalists in the audience, he didn't fall for it for a moment, particularly when one of the journos ask "Lord Mandelson, do you think the pound has fallen enough?"

Some sessions are definitely on the record though. Many sessions have an official rapporteur whose job it is to try to summarise an often complex, fast moving hour long dialogue into a pithy one page summary. This morning I spoke at a session on whether the Internet itself is at risk, alongside Dave DeWalt, CEO of security company McAfee, Mitchell Baker, Chairperson of Mozilla Foundation, Professor Jonathan Zittrain of Harvard Law School and Andre Kudelski, Chairman of the digital security Kudelski Group.

We had a lively conversation, including contributions from folk in the audience such as Craig Mundie, Chief Research & Strategy Office of Microsoft and Howard Dean, former Chairman of the USA Democratic National Committee. Acronyms flew in every direction - identity theft, routers, botnets. The poor old rapporteur came up to me afterwards asking for a card " case I have to clarify anything."

"....oh and by the way" she continued "you have nice dimples".

Davos is full of surprises!

Thursday, 29 January 2009

Green shoots pushing through the Davos frost?

There is a lot of gloomy talk about the recession but there is another conversation here that perhaps points to some green shoots desperately pushing their heads through the Davos frost.

The narrative goes something like this. Yes, we are facing one to two years of recession followed by a slow recovery. But during this period the opportunity exists to make major strides in certain areas, the main one being climate change initiatives, and that's getting people excited. It’s giving people something to focus on and when two thousand global influencers focus on the same thing, you get the sense that something might just happen.

You hear this narrative in the speech given by Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to President Obama. You hear this in the venture capital lunch where early stage investors talk about where the money is going next. You even hear it in the shuttle buses that ferry groups of participants between the conference centre and the hotels dotted around Davos and Klosters.

Lots of unexpected encounters and serendipitous conversations happen in these little vans as delegates are thrown together at random. This evening returning to the hotel, I got chatting to Professor Daniel Sperling of the University of California, Davis, a leading international expert on transportation and energy, a key player in shaping California's thinking in this area. He was quite upbeat about the direction things were going in and when I asked whether the automotive companies were playing ball he pointed out that they are, after all, seeking huge amounts of support from an energy conscious administration at the moment. Green shoots out of the frost indeed.

Speaking of unexpected encounters, I had one of those surreal "Davos moments" today. I had just finished chatting to Stelios, founder of Easyjet, who asked whether I was going to the Prince Andrew hosted event. I said no as I was heading back to my hotel. Kofi Annan, Former UN Secretary General, was dropping his coat off and we nodded at each other as I pulled my snowboots on. Then David Cameron came though, paused to chat to Kofi briefly and carried on down the corridor, stopping only when he came face to face with Boris Johnson heading in the opposite direction. As they chatted, Tony Blair whisked past with his minders, again pausing to exchange pleasantries with Kofi Annan.

Head spinning slightly, I trudged off to the shuttle bus through the Davos snow, keeping my eyes peeled for green shoots.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Three Nuns and an Archbishop

Some of the most interesting meetings at Davos take place over dinner in the evening. These happen away from the Congress Centre, in the hotels scattered around this picturesque town. They are small informal events, usually with about 30 guests and 3 to 5 speakers with topics ranging from The Future of Entertainment and Preparing for a Pandemic to Leadership Lessons from Shakespeare's Macbeth.

This evening I was a speaker at a dinner entitled "What Was Privacy?". Alongside me were, amongst others, internet luminaries such as the A-list blogger Robert Scoble, Reid Hoffman, Chairman and Founder of the $Billion social networking site, Linkedin, and, er, the Archbishop of Dublin. Yes, that's not a typo, it was the actual Archbishop of Dublin, who turned out to be remarkably well informed about a range of privacy issues.

A lively discussion ensued, moderated by the leading French blogger Loic Le Meur. The bloggers took a fairly strong "privacy is dead, get over it" line arguing that the benefits of exposing yourself online (literally in the case of Scoble's pictures of himself in the shower) in terms of support from friends out there on the web, far outway the loss of privacy. I took a strong privacy position arguing that individuals must take control of their online identities.

Following debate over dinner at the five tables, we fed back our views. However, to bring it to life a bit the chap feeding back from the Archbishop's table unacountably kicked off his comments with the phrase "Let me tell you an anecdote about three nuns....".

The Art of Business

Three hundred powerful Davos executives standing up with their arms outstretched, singing Happy Birthday at the top of their voices to a complete stranger balancing precariously on a chair at the front? That's what happens when you attend a session led by the Conductor and management guru Benjamin Zander. That's what happens when you mix the arts and business and that is typical of the mixing that goes on here at Davos.

Zander took us on a journey from the Nine Dot problem to the Holocaust, from a spontaneous, deeply emotional performance of Mozart by a string quartet to the whole room thundering Ode To Joy in German. His message was simple. It's up to us as individuals to decide how we look at the world. We decide whether our conversations are about downward spirals or about possibilities. As his father told him "there is no bad weather, just inappropriate clothes". We left buzzing and it certainly made a huge contrast to a parallel session that I think should have had the title "That's Another Fine Mess You've Gotten Us Into".

Thus inspired, I now need to deliver my own talk this afternoon at a Harvard Business Review session, on the emergence of the Semantic Web in the artistic Pecha Kucha format. You get exactly 15 slide images. Each slide stays on the screen for exactly 20 seconds. And that's it. 15 pictures and 5 minutes to explain to a completely non-technical audience one of the most fundamental, technical changes that is happening to the Web over its 20 year life.

You can take this "art of business" thing too far, you know!

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Back to school in Davos

Returning to Davos this year has a "back to school" feel about it. Last year I was a just a new boy but already I feel like a veteran amongst this year's newbies with whom I shared the short flight from London and the long coach ride from Zurich up into the mountains of Davos and Kloisters.

I dispensed sage advice to the usual eclectic mix of Davos attendees; the Oxford academic Director of a cutting edge research institute, the charming Chatham House diplomat, the Dutch developing country agriculture specialist who had just flown in from Delhi via Beijing.

As they told me about life changing medical treatment, food production in the Chinese counryside and geopolitical maneuvering, I told them about the importance of snow boots, how to barge billionaires out of the way to get the best seats and what not to wear at the British Business Leaders Lunch (apparently comfortable wooly jumpers are out, as I discovered last year when everyone else turned up in sombre business suits).

Speaking of sombre, the media is making a lot of the sombre mood in Davos this year. That is at odds with the excited chatter in the coach that I'm listening to. I just overheard someone say that a couple of years ago he and hundreds of others received a cocktail party invitation in the form of an ipod. He said he didn't know what it was back then so he threw it in the bin! Well, we may not get ipod invites this year but the Davos crowd is having its first day back at school and it's as excited as ever.

Monday, 26 January 2009

Last Week was Today

Last week marked Garlik's first appearance on the BBC's flagship Radio 4 programme, Today. It was a short piece (5 minutes 47 seconds to be exact) but I think it worked well.

After the broadcast I got an email from a contact wondering who our PR company is (Band & Brown if you are interested) and how we managed to end up on such a high profile news programme. So what goes in to putting together a 5 minute 47 second slot on a major news programme like Today? Well, about 6 months of effort as it happens.

In this case, Angus Stickler, the BBC investigative journalist who led the piece got into contact with me around the middle of 2008 to talk about the big issues in the world of personal information. We talk about some research I was doing into the way the UK Government handles personal data and we decided that this would for the focus for a piece.

I then issued about 25 Freedom of Information requests to major Government departments asking them a series of questions about how they handle information. I got a range of responses (from "here's the answer" to "why do you want to know?") and spent several months chasing up, arguing, negotiating with these departments to get a coherent set of replies.

So, about two months after we first got together Angus came back in to pre-record an interview with me. In the meantime he had found another independent expert from the British Computer Society, who also had a strong view on this issue and recorded an interview with her.

When he came in to record the interview with me, we got everything set up and he reviewed the list of departments that I had received replies from. However he decided that there were several key departments missing, so we had to cancel the interview and I went back out and issued another tranche of FoI requests bring the total to about 35 (subsequently grouped together to end up as 30 responses). This took another couple of months and we were now into December.

Angus came back in and spent a couple of hour recording the interview. He even had to record "background noise" around Garlik's office. I asked why they don't just use general background noise but apparently if on a BBC radio programme they say they are in an office and you hear keyboards tapping away and background office chatter, they have to be actual keyboards tapping in the actual office they have referred to!

Next step was to contact the Information Commissioners Office to see whether they would be willing to put up a spokesperson. They agreed and that needed to be scheduled, so a few weeks later off Angus went to Wilmslow, near Manchester, to record that interview.

Finally the package was all together and it was put into the hands of the Today Programme editors to decide when to run it and whether to try to get a Government Minister onto the programme to answer questions. After a week or so back and forth with the Cabinet Office about providing a Minister, Today finally decide to run the piece.

So we wake up early on Wednesday morning at 6am waiting to hear the piece go to air. 7am nothing. 8am nothing. 8.45am nothing. Finally the 9am news comes on and the item is not mentioned. After all that. Damn!

We get an email that evening saying "sorry about that, something came up but don't worry it will go out tomorrow". But this time I didn't bother getting up early. I got up at 7.30 and tuned in. As there was no mention of the story by about 8.30am I left the house and jumped on the bus to head off for a meeting up in London. Five minutes later I got a text from my wife say "Just heard you on the radio. Don't know what you were saying thought".

6 months. 30 plus Freedom of Information requests. About a hundred emails and phone calls. Several hours of interviews and editing. And I missed it !

Next time you hear someone on the radio, talking for a few minutes and then getting cut off by an agressive interviewer or the clock striking 9, spare a though for the effort that has gone into it behind the scenes.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

300 Professors

Yeserday I found myself face to face with The 300.

300 Professors that is (more or less). And not exactly "face to face". Actually I found myself face to face with the paperwork that 300 Professors are capable of producing when bidding for large scale research funding. It was truly awesome.

A while back I agreed to sit on an EPSRC (research council) panel to evaluate bids to set up three new "Digital Economy Hubs" each of which will be given about £12m. The Hubs will exist for five years and involve hundreds of multidisciplinary researchers looking at all aspects of the digital world. In UK academy research terms £36m is BIG money.

What I had not fully appreciated was that BIG money would result in BIG documents, BIG names, BIG ideas. I don't think I have ever read so much paperwork. Staggering.

I can't say much about the outcome. I did wonder about the process though. Shouldn't a Digital Economy Hub bid be a bit more, well, digital?

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

In the company of genius

2009 kicked off properly for me yesterday with a fascinating few hours in the company of genius.

I organised a meeting of minds for a free flowing discussion about a rapidly emerging area of the semantic web called FOAF. It was a bit self-indulgent really because I love hanging out with really, really smart people, in the hope that some of it might rub off :)

To my right sat Professor Nigel Shadbolt former President of the British Computer Society, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the Web, Libby Miller co-creator (with Dan Brickley) of FOAF itself. On my left sat JP Rangaswami Managing Director of innovation & strategy at BT Design but perhaps better known as the blogger Confused of Calcutta, Luke Razzell, the creator of the acclaimed BlogFriends app on Facebook. At the end of the table sat a group of very smart tech guys from various areas of the BBC and my frightenly bright Garlik tech team were scattered around the room.

Unusually for me, I let the conversation flow in a fairly unstructured way, although my personality type was perched on my shoulder screaming "Impose Order, Demand Structure you weak willed, crazy-sock-wearing, happy-go-lucky hippie". But I resisted, sat back and enjoyed the debate.

It was fascinating to watch and listen to such a group of extremely bright people having a conversation. At one point someone suggested that we do a straw poll around the table on our attitude towards privacy defaults, but I felt obliged to point out that you couldn't assemble a more unlikely and unrepresentative "focus group"!

I have a particular interest in understanding and unleashing gifted people. I am developing a charitable educational project to introduce "gifted and talented" education on a huge scale across Africa. Generally educational projects in African start at the level of putting a roof on a building and providing second hand books and that basic work is essential. But at the other extreme, if we use the same criteria as we use in the UK to identify "gifted and talented" young people (i.e. the top 5% by ability) then there are 20m children across Africa who would receive special attention as being the most gifted and talented if they happened to be born elsewhere. Imagine what might happen if we could unleash them? If those minds were working on Africa's challenges and exploiting Africa's opportunities?

So, I think my theme for 2009 is going to be about unleashing brilliant minds to do brilliant things and act as a cheerleader. WoooHooo. Go Genius. Go Genius (cue pompoms and high kicking).