Uber becomes (more) legal in NZ

The Land Transport Amendment Bill (No 2) passed its third and final reading in Parliament on 4 August. One of the changes it makes are to ‘small passenger’ service regulations (i.e. taxis). The new rules are expected to come into force on 1 October 2017.

Here are some different perspectives on the change. Continue reading “Uber becomes (more) legal in NZ”

The future of Scoop.co.nz

Screenshot from 2017-05-07 19-04-37

I’ve been meaning for a while to put down in writing my thoughts on Scoop.co.nz. What follows is hopefully constructive criticism.

What is Scoop?

Scoop calls itself an “independent news website” but it’s fundamentally a big collection of press releases. It’s been collecting them since 1999 — mostly from New Zealand — and now has a huge number of historical press releases. The fact that it has all these press releases in one place is really useful. As organisations and companies change their websites these press releases often go missing — so it’s great from a research perspective to have them collated in one place.

Recently Scoop has run into financial problems (seemingly mostly because of the collapsing market for advertising) and has been repeatedly crowdfunding to stay afloat. It has also been transitioning from a “for-profit” company (although losing money) to a non-profit member organisation. Part of this shift involves the Scoop Foundation offering grants for investigate journalism.

Scoop has also introduced what it calls an “ethical paywall”. Basically if you’re a commercial user Scoop expects you to pay for using the website, although there’s no actual paywall stopping you from looking at the content. This strategy seems to have been pretty successful based on the number of organisations paying for a licence.

The website is terrible!

If you go to Scoop.co.nz you’ll see straight away that it has a terrible website. (It’s straight out of the mid 2000s. In fact if you look at a 2006 version of the site, it doesn’t look that different.) There’s far too much going on — too many columns of different content and an overly comprehensive navigation system at the top.

I know Scoop is well aware of this website problem. They have taken the good step of introducing a beta mobile website, but the main website remains seemingly frozen in time.

[Update 13 May — see bottom of the post for details of the new website]

Continue reading “The future of Scoop.co.nz”

Briefly: What’s the value of a free service?

At the New York Times, Patricia Cohen has written an interesting piece on how economic growth measures (e.g. Gross Domestic Product, or GDP) aren’t great at measuring some parts of the economy.

That’s because a country’s GDP doesn’t include goods or services which are ‘free’. For instance, a mother or father who doesn’t work and looks after their kid doesn’t add a dollar to GDP because they aren’t being paid — but they’re performing an immensely valuable service.

Another — increasingly important — GDP blackhole is free digital services:

The growing suspicion, however, is that in a digital world overflowing with free services like Facebook, Google and YouTube, price is an increasingly ill-suited proxy for value.

What is the worth of a free software update that protects against a nasty virus? Of the streaming service that enables you to watch shows on your computer instead of on a television? Of the hours and hours saved by looking up a fact on Wikipedia rather than having to go to a library? All have productive value but no price.

I’ve thought about this problem in relation to free/open source software too. The more people who are using open source software, the lower GDP goes, even if the user is happier than if they’d paid for propriety software.

What are Facebook’s responsibilities as an information gatekeeper?

 By Oliviu Stoian, RO (CC-BY)
By Oliviu Stoian, RO (CC-BY)

I’ve previously written about how Facebook is a sort of quasi monopolistic utility. Part of Facebook’s status as a dominant player is that it has a huge rule in determining what news people see. A few developments in the past few months have raised interesting questions about how Facebook deals with its role as an information gatekeeper.

Humans = bad, robots = good

You have read a while ago that Facebook was in trouble for supposedly showing a left-wing bias in an obscure part of its platform which was curated by human employees. This was not the main newsfeed but a small section called ‘Trending Topics’. In response to the controversy, Facebook switched from having humans curate the topics to using a supposedly more neutral and fundamentally workable algorithm (in other words moving to a newsfeed-like model). Continue reading “What are Facebook’s responsibilities as an information gatekeeper?”

Facebook as a powerful, ubiquitous ‘utility’

Kwame Opam wrote an interesting piece on The Verge a few months ago about Facebook’s responsibilities in the modern world (in the context of the Paris terror attacks). I thought his point that Facebook has become so ubiquitous that it’s akin to a ‘utility’ is a particularly interesting one:

Facebook is both a utility and an immensely powerful media company. The social network wields more influence than any single news outlet on the planet, serving as both a wire service and forum for 1.01 billion daily users. That means readers in search of a narrative will often turn to Facebook first. That’s an enormous responsibility, especially as the company acts out its ambitions of becoming a global portal to the internet at large. We need to ask ourselves: what should Facebook’s role be in determining the narratives that people follow?

Continue reading “Facebook as a powerful, ubiquitous ‘utility’”

Making an open source thesis

Front page of thesis

I’ve just — finally — submitted my politics Masters thesis to the Victoria University of Wellington library, and I thought it might be interesting to note down a few things I did along the way. I’m really interesting in open source, so I thought it would be a good idea to walk the talk and make an open source thesis.

Using open source tools

One of the most obvious ways to make an open source thesis was is to use open source tools. I used LibreOffice Writer to write all 42,000 words of it. Using LO writer was an almost entirely pain free process, except for a couple of admittedly stressful times when the xml of the file got corrupted and I had to revert to old versions to rescue my work.

I also analysed my focus group transcripts using the open source qualitative data analysis tool RQDA. It was really easy and worked really well — I would definitely recommend it.

Add a creative commons licence

I chose to license my thesis under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike International 4.0 Licence. The licence basically allows anyone to share or remix my work as long as they attribute me as the creator and share their subsequent creation with the same licence (or a compatible one). While I think I’m pretty realistic about the fact that pretty much noone is ever going to look at my thesis, I think it’s cool to think that someone might come along and do something interesting with my work.

The international Creative Commons organisation has been advocating for students to license their theses since at least 2009. There must be huge numbers of theses now out there available to read, remix and build on. It’s much easier to stand on the metaphorical shoulders of giants in scholarship when everything is free to read!

Making your thesis open access

The university where I studied has a good open access repository, so I’ll be putting my thesis in the open access section so anyone can view it and download it for free. I think adding your work to the open access repository is a fantastic idea — it’s the best way to make it available so people will actually read it.

Uber and the future of work

The New York Times has an interesting piece exploring the impact of Uber’s business model on work and employment in the future:

The larger worry about on-demand jobs is not about benefits, but about a lack of agency — a future in which computers, rather than humans, determine what you do, when and for how much. The rise of Uber-like jobs is the logical culmination of an economic and tech system that holds efficiency as its paramount virtue.

“I’m glad if people like working for Uber, but those subjective feelings have got to be understood in the context of there being very few alternatives,” Dr. Reich said. “Can you imagine if this turns into a Mechanical Turk economy, where everyone is doing piecework at all odd hours, and no one knows when the next job will come, and how much it will pay? What kind of private lives can we possibly have, what kind of relationships, what kind of families?”

The on-demand economy may be better than the alternative of software automating all our work. But that isn’t necessarily much of a cause for celebration.

The on-demand economy Manjoo outlines sounds hellish.

This quote in particular resonated with me:

“After interviewing many workers in the on-demand world, Dr. Reich said he has concluded that “most would much rather have good, well-paying, regular jobs.”

Rather than allowing jobs in the twenty first century to become casualised and atomised, I think we would do well to aim for decent, well paying jobs.

One road block to this atomization of labour is labour-protection laws in the United States. The Verge is reporting that there are a couple of class-action law suits in the United States at the moment against Uber and Lyft. The class-action suits are trying to argue that the people who drive around for these companies are actually employees, which matters because employees get access to a range of benefits (such as petrol expenses) which Uber and Lyft drivers don’t currently have. It will be interesting to see what happens with these cases!