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Brislen on Tech this week

Paul Brislen, Editor. 19 August 2016, 3:23 pm

The elephant in the room

It's a bit of a problem.

On the one hand, governments are large-scale users of data and should be basing their decisions on clearly defined outcomes based on measurable requirements.

They should spend money on things that improve the lot of their stakeholders (that is, the citizens of the country) and they should do so without favour.

But at the same time they're political animals, with one eye on the next election and one on the election after. Just as sales reps are coin-operated (put in money and they'll do things. Don't put in money and they won't), so too are our politicians. They're all about the votes and so they direct their underlings to never surprise them, to always have the answers and never ever ever to fail.

That creates something of a conundrum for those agencies and departments that are charged with running large parts of our government. They want the best bang for their (our) buck, are under constant scrutiny for any signs of failure and are terrified of doing the wrong thing. This leads to a behaviour that is so risk averse it actually creates risk.

Governments aren't alone in this. I can name a dozen corporates with a similar approach to life without having to lift a finger, and I'm sure with some research we could list hundreds of "failures" that in government circles would result in the certain collapse of civilisation as we know it (or something equally drastic).

Yet all of this flies in the face of the modern world of digital technology. Over on this side of the ledger speed is the name of the game, and new approaches to old problems are a given. I deal with one company that has "pivoted" three times now. In under a year. Fail fast and learn from your mistakes is something that should be taken as a point of pride, yet all too often in the world outside ICT is taken as a sign of, well, failure.

Which brings us to the case in point.

Australia's census night has been a disaster of epic proportions. The gleeful non-Australian in me is gleeful at the prospect.

After slashing the budget for the Australian Bureau of Statistics and outsourcing a large chunk of the work to IBM, the online census has been a dismal failure. Worse, the government blamed "hackers" and then a DOS attack but has finally realised it's actually just poor design and planning.

Load testing isn't difficult these days. Long gone are the "Slashdot effect" moments when everyone takes a look at your site and it melts through the planet's core and we all have a good laugh.

Except in Australia something as straightforward as a census (let's face it, that's not complicated) went off the rails so spectacularly that it's made international news.

So on the one hand I want to stand up and say "haw-haw" and point and laugh but on the other hand, how are we ever going to build a commitment to delivering good quality products and services for government if we don't accept the learnings from this and move on?

Government spending is never going to not be in the spotlight for as long as we have governments and a desire to "keep the buggers honest".  But there's got to be a better way of doing things that this.

The Guardian - Census 2016: outage due to 'overcautious' response, not hacking, government says

NZ Herald - Juha Saarinen: Australia's Census 2016 trainwreck

NZ Herald - The F-word in business

TechBlog - Creating a level playing field

TechBlog - The future of government procurement

ITNews - Experts cast doubt on ABS' Census DoS claims


Marsden Fund

IITP has joined forces with ten other New Zealand ICT groups to raise serious concerns about apparent bias within New Zealand's major Marsden research fund that has led to a significant under-investment in tech-related research over time.

The Marsden Fund gave out 92 grants last year totalling over $56 million, but only three of those were computer science related.

The Fund is supposed to support "excellence in science, engineering, maths, social sciences and the humanities in New Zealand by providing grants for investigator-initiated research" according to its website, but because of a lack of ICT experience on its funding panel, most projects put up for consideration are turned away with little explanation.

Compared with Australia we're looking a tad shabby.

Just 17% of funding approvals for the combined maths and tech-related areas goes to tech-related research. This means around four maths-related research applications are approved per tech-related research application in New Zealand. In Australia the figure is closer to 50% or more.

On average the Marsden Fund funds around 1.5 research projects a year in tech fields, compared with an average of 46.5 a year by Australia's equivalent Discovery Fund.

That's quite a differential and given how little R&D actually gets accounted for in New Zealand, having more spend in this area would be generally seen as a good thing.

TechBlog - IT industry speaks with one voice on Marsden research funding

NBR - Tech groups say $273m Marsden Fund suffers 'imbalance and apparent structural bias'

IITP - Joint Submission

Marsden Fund - About Us


Stuff Fibre

Somewhat out of left field came the announcement this week that Fairfax, a media conglomerate, will enter the brave new world of consumer broadband provision and offer fibre-to-the-home services over the shiny new UFB network.

No details on pricing have emerged yet, or if they have they've been muffled by the harrumphing and newspaper shaking of the Technorati who are flummoxed by the move.

I spoke to Fairfax's New Zealand CEO, Simon Tong, about all of this. Tong, for those who don't know, used to be fairly senior at Hewlett Packard New Zealand and can't be considered uninformed when it comes to the IT world.

Tong's view is that Fairfax has a relationship with consumers, has a long history of helping consumers buy products and has a clear and present need to find an alternative form of income to help fund the journalism we all want.

He sees offering broadband services as one way of doing that.

The advertising market is dead, he rightly points out, and isn't about to spring back into life any time soon. Instead, if we want to pay for journalists to do journalism we need to find a new alternate source of funding and this is the first project Fairfax has got to have a crack at leveraging (sorry) its user base.

I can see where he's coming from. I'm sceptical about the level of profit anyone will be able to make from selling UFB services to consumers, but it's good to see a major publisher thinking about alternatives to the current death spiral they seem to all be in.

This isn't the first media-technology merger we've seen in New Zealand and nor will it be the last. Vodafone is buying Sky TV. Spark is helping to fund The Spin Off. This merger of platforms and the confluence of broadcasting and internet access is happening around us and so we're going to see this kind of thing happening more often than not in the coming months.

In some respects I'm surprised we haven't seen a deal like this already, but I was expecting it to be in the mobile space, not fixed-line. Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs) are commonplace around the world and are a relatively cost-effective way to compete in the mobile market without needing to build a network.

In the UK, supermarket chain Tesco's has long been a market leader in this area. Today you can buy Tesco branded mobile, landline, broadband and cable TV services alongside your bread and milk.

Tong tells me he has no plans to get into the mobile game and that's quite telling. Only The Warehouse has had a serious crack at being an MVNO (indeed, it's had two goes) but so far that's hardly setting the world on fire. In the UK the world's first MVNO, Virgin Mobile, has carved out a good sized market niche and in other countries MVNOs make up the bulk of the challenger side of the equation.

So what is it about New Zealand's environment that means we don't have an MVNO model that's working?

Tong also said he won't be mucking around with prioritising or de-prioritising traffic in any way. He wants to offer a simple solution to the market and that means no silly buggers with net neutrality.

That's very welcome news indeed.

Idealog - Pivot? Diversification? Expansion? Fairfax joins the fibre game

Bill Bennett - Struggling Fairfax enters low-margin broadband market

NBR - Fairfax fibre move simple diversification, CEO says

NBR - Fairfax going into the ISP business makes no sense

RNZ - Fairfax to launch ISP called Stuff Fibre

Stuff - Stuff to enter the broadband market with Stuff Fibre


Fibre to the Brislen - an update

Good news, readers. As you'll know I am on the list for getting Ultra Fast Broadband at home. I've watched it roll out down my street, I've received the mailer from my ISP (and a couple of competing offers - nice to see competition at work) and signed up for the service.

I've also had a visit from a nice chap who's walked up and down the driveway and assessed the site for deployment.

And that's all good but…

The problem is, Chorus wants to connect the fibre overhead to the wall at the front of my house, where the copper telephone line is currently connected. This makes sense to them because a: there's an existing route already in place and b: it's cheap.

I get that, I really do, and in an ideal world I'd have no problem with it.

But a couple of years ago we extended the house and shelled out not a small amount of money for a CAT6 network to ensure that once fibre did become available we'd have some serious speed in every available corner of the building.

I shocked the sparky by telling him I didn't want his hifi cabling (he put it in anyway) in the ceiling but I would take a CAT6 network run in a star configuration thanks and that, so I'm told, is what I've got.

The set-up is recommended by Chorus in its home wiring guide and Craig Young, now the CEO at TUANZ but back then the community liaison guy at Chorus, told me they'd really like to connect the fibre to the lounge and plug it in near to the TV set because that way you get the best experience where you want it most - for home entertainment.

My lounge is now at the back of the house and the CAT6 network connects to a nice junction box about as far away from the old Telecom phone line as it's possible to get.

I've pointed this out to Chorus's tech (who kindly and somewhat foolishly gave me an email address "in case I have any questions about the install") but he says he doesn't deal with in-house matters, just with connecting the house to the street.

Hmmm, I say.

I shall report back on any further developments in due course.

Final note: I've received lots of updates from my ISP (Vodafone) about the fibre installation, which is lovely. Except every email has been exactly the same. A picture of the pig, a cheery greeting and then a blurb that says "Right now we're working through the first phase of the installation process" and tells me how excited they are that I'm so excited. That's probably enough of those, OK?

Oh and my wife has randomly received a TXT message about it all, even though she's not on the order form.

Watch this space.



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