Reality can be improved

This is sooo cool. People at made a special augmented reality browser, called Layar. What is does is that is show you digital reality over the physical reality in the screen of your phone. For example you point you phone at a house and over the camera picture it is shown if it is for sale and what is the price. Look below.

All kinds of interesting applications can be made with this. In a project in the Amsterdam Living Lab we are piloting an application like this to find out how people will use such a service, especially when they are able to leave digital information behind that others can see with their phone. It may be that we will use the Layar technology instead of the home grown one. Of course a phone with and a GPS and a compass is needed like the Google phone or the latest iPhone 3gs.

"Secret" service, now on Facebook!

sirjohnA small row in the UK because the wife of the new head of MI6 has placed pictures of her family including her husband on Facebook including information on the place where they live, where they go on holiday and other information. I think this is a good example of how more and more people are used to publicising information on themselves that they would not have thought about publicising some years ago.
Reaction of the foreign secretary: ‘It is not a state secret that he wears Speedo swimming trunks. Let’s grow up.’
Of course he is right on the swimming trunks. I omitted that picture not of secrecy but of bad taste … However this is an example how social networking is becoming part of our everyday existence and that even the family of the head of MI6 do not realize the width of the audiences like Facebook has.

We know what you did last summer

Some time ago I wrote about the dangers of developments like child dossiers used by governments. One of the major risks is that people that will use this information use it without knowledge of the context when the information was stored. Information without context is hard to interpret leaves a lot of room for personal biases.
The Rathenau project I am doing deals with how the information anyone can find on the Internet will more and more become the context from which much of the official information in databases like Electronic Patient Files, Child Dossier, Civil Administration and others will be interpreted. This I showed also in the case on the social services. And many will recognize how they are using information found on the Internet as the context of the CV of a job applicant.
In relation to the social services we can debate whether this is a bad thing. After all the government also used special “kliklijnen” where people can complain anonymous about the black market activities of their neighbour on welfare. Not to say I approve of this method but it is legal.
But what about a health insurance company that starts to search the Internet for information on their patients. By law the insurance company has no access to the patients medical record. Are they allowed to factor in the information they can find on the Internet? I would say not but how can we prevent them from using this information. We can not prevent them from finding this information…
An example someone from CBP gave made me think. Say a woman just found out she is pregnant and has discussed morning sickness on a forum on the Internet. A week later she has a job interview where the HR manager has found this information. Even though as a society we have accepted that a potential pregnancy should not be discussed in job interviews we can not prevent people from using this information when they accidentally find it. And due to all kinds of mechanism I will discuss soon it is getting harder to stay anonymous on the Internet.
We can and should not control the information that is on the Internet. But on the one hand we will have to develop laws that govern what institutions are allowed to use and on the other hand we ourselves will have to deal with the fact that much personal information can be found.
Unless of course your name is Jan Jansen…


090319beauGoogle is at the moment making pictures of all the citys in the Netherlands for their streetview service. Besides this being a usefull service (what does that area look like) it leads to some bizarre situations:

  • In some cases Google has by accident photographed famous dutch people. Even though the faces are blurred in most cases the people are still clearly recognisable. This may of course be a problem since it makes the place where someone lives visible for everyone.
  • In one case a crime is even solved. Some time ago a person was mugged in the street, just a the moment the Google streetview care was driving by taking pictures. The criminals got away. After some months the person looked at the streetview pictures of that location and to his surprise he could see himself and the boys that mugged him running away. He called the police, they called Google for the un-blurred pictures and got them. The criminals are apprehended.

Streetview now even has it’s own site where remarkable pictures can be found. Two people walking hand in hand on four separate pictures and others, famous people, people driving through red and others. The sheer amount of pictures that are being taking leads to all kinds of new questions how we should deal with it in relation to privacy.
How do you feel about this trend, do you see it as an invasion of your privacy?

How was your vacation?

(to get in the mood for this posting you need to repeat the title of the article in a deeply sinister voice, you will understand why at the end of the posting ..)

At the moment I am working on a project for Rathenau institute relating to privacy and the information you can find on individuals on the Internet. I was talking to a friend who works for social security in a large city and he said that the Internet is a source they often use to get information about people.

One of the sites they are using is This is a service that queries information about a person from all kinds of sources: google, yahoo, schoolbank, hyves and others. But it also finds telephone numbers, the tags that relate to that person, photos and document that are associated with you.

It turns out that they regularly find information about people that points towards fraud. For example somebody who is asked by someone else how her vacation was in Mexico. At the social security service they for example can see that that person did not register for a vacation. Result can be that the person is invited to come to city hall to show her passport that may have a Mexican visa stamp in it….

This is an example of a new type of transparency that is becoming more and more pervasive in society. And it is not just the information you yourself put on the Internet. In the example above it can also be some of you friends discussed on hyves a story that you told them about your vacation.

In a way I think transparency is good. It can help us be more authentic. But it can also be a dangerous instrument when people trust too much on information that may be wrong or even distorted on purpose. As society we need to think about how to deal with this type of transparency.

Happy Holidays!

Would you do what Google does?



I just finished reading the Book “What would google do” from Jeff Jarvis. It is an interesting book but it puzzles me on two parts. In two words: Adds and Apples.
As for Adds, on the one hand he stresses the importance of the business model of Google by selling adds based on the data that you collect of a person. And of course, Google is wildly successful in selling adds. But on the other hand he explains that, due to the networked transparency that the Internet creates, advertising is less important. He even points out that not needing to advertise is a sign of success. To me that sounds like a contradiction. The more successful companies become in using the transparency of the Internet (created and improved in a large part by Google) the less profitable Google will become (and therefore not being able anymore to sustain their role in creating transparency). This catch 22 type of situation will no doubt have some equilibrium but is totally disregarded by Jeff Jarvis.
Another question about the business models on advertising that always puzzles me how far it can take us. If everybody would have advertising as their business model, who would pay for add? This “Addtention” economy can not encompass all, somewhere along the line people will have to pay for real products and services (and the companies selling these services are in the end the ones that are paying for the adds).
The second thing that puzzles me is Apples or, since they are unique, Apple. In many ways Apple is the opposite of Google. They create their products like an autist in splendid isolation. They are completely secretive about what they are doing and what products they are working on. They are closed in their hardware and most of their software and are ruthless towards people that breach that secrecy (or perhaps, HE is) is. And they too are wildly successful.  This discrepancy is mentioned by Jeff Jarvis but immediately is put aside because “Apple is a class in it’s own”. But of course, Google is a class of it’s own too. The reasons why companies like Google, Apple and Microsoft are successful can never just be copied because their current success feeds on the fact that they became an outlier (meaning a small difference in the beginning created the opportunity to keep enlarging that advantage).
The good thing about the book are the hypothetical cases he discusses in the end. What if banks would be operated in a Google manner, or insurance companies, or a hospital. Lots of foods for thought there (talking about food: also what if a restaurant would operate like Google).

Recovery revisited is the website that Obama uses to deliver on his promise to let us monitor “to the last dime” of the government money that is being spent in the simulus package. However, reporting on progress and spending is a difficult thing if you have to fall back on formal reporting mechanisms from the whole country to the lowest bureaucratic levels. At this moment they are saying that the first reports will be delivered somewhere in Oktober (november, december …).
In comes a commercial company, Onvia, that made a website that tracks the planning and spending of the stimulus package on the website This website relies on a crawler mechanism that checks thousands of websites on information about spending in relation to the stimulus package and make this information available to the public. For companies to lead them to intesting projects to pitch and for citizens to check what kind of projects are being setup in your local neighbourhood and make it possible to complain about silly projects to local politicians. Below is an interview with the CEO of Onvia:

I think this is an interesting development where formal reporting procedures are turn out to be much slower than can be achieved with public scanning of websites and some intelligence of crowds. Question of course is to check the validity of the information but, as they say in open source: with enough eyeballs all bugs are shallow. Enough citizens using a website like this to check on progress and projects means a pretty good check on the validity of information.

Scalia likes …

Some time ago I had a discussion at the Rathenau institute with Geert Munnich about a new project they are setting up (the picture on the side I took of Geert and Mirjam Schuijff to show them that it is not only information they publish themselves that may harm their privacy but also pictures someone else might take that includes date and GPS data). During this meeting we talked about the idea that in a way the Internet is often used for the same purpose as the formal databases are used to find information about people. There is so much valuable information to find on people if you take some effort to find it. It is probably even richer than the data in many formal databases like those form the civil service.
In relation to this I came across this article. It deals with Judge Scalia of the supreme court in the USA. He has always played privacy issues down in relation to information stored on the Internet. However, recently a professor of law in the USA asked a group of his students to compile a dossier on judge Scalia based on information they could find on the Internet. This turned into a 15 page dossier with much information that is fairly personal like the food he likes, the movies he goes to, private e-mail addresses and more. The response of Scalia was as follows:

It is not a rare phenomenon that what is legal may also be quite irresponsible. That appears in the First Amendment context all the time. What can be said often should not be said. Prof. Reidenberg’s exercise is an example of perfectly legal, abominably poor judgment. Since he was not teaching a course in judgment, I presume he felt no responsibility to display any.

I think this reaction completely disregards the duty we have as a society to protect people from too much information floating around. We know that not everybody will be responsible with information they find.
Of course, there is nothing of interest to find about me …

Banker 2.0

Recently Hans Wortmann and me have given a presentation in Amsterdam for the Holland Financial Centre (HFC). Subject of this presentation was (of course) the development of SaaS in relation to the financial Sector. ICT is very much undervalued in the financial sector. Even though financial institutions spend considerably amount of money on IT it seldom is used strategically in practice. Robin Fransman, deputy director of HFC, showed this clearly by pointing out that the wordt ICT is only mentioned once in the working plan for the HFC for 2008/2009. This funny enough to everyone’s surprise!
In the presentation (that you can find here) we showed many examples how ICT in general and SaaS in particular will change the banking sector significantly in the coming years. For example, Google already has a banking licence in the Netherlands
The presentation changed into a lively and interesting discussion with the the audiance. The general feeling was that financial institutions really should be more aware of the strategic possibilities (and competitive dangers) of ICT. At the moment we are working an a way, together with HFC, to keep that discussion going.
You can find the presentation here.