Sunday, 21 June 2015

Relationships in the office environment

Relationships in the office environment are, sometimes, the nightmare of HR. I'm not talking about romantic relationships - that's a completely different chapter. I'm talking about the "common" person-to-person relationships that people tend to form with those around them. Once considered "a waste of working time" and "a burden to productivity", now, they seem to be approached under a more positive light as something with a potential to boost productivity, creativity and employee loyalty.

'Cow Bell' by jar (away) under
a CC license

Working in an environment where you know that you can count on people, not only as co-workers but also as human beings creates a feeling of safety and helps motivate people and brings out higher levels of commitment on their behalf. Good relationships at work creates a very positive environment that reflects to the organisations and can also be visible further beyond to customers or other third parties.

The problem with interpersonal relationships is that they may be unpredictable. People have their bad days, employees experience stress, bad things happen that spoil moods, etc. And, guess what, bad relationships can easily poison the work environment, negate the aforementioned benefits and lead to penalties for both productivity and creativity.

So how does on manage the human reationship side of the work environment?

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Trialability is key to adopting the right innovations

Trialability is the possibility that a client or a user, in general, is given to test a particular product for a finite amount of time in order to test its characteristics and, ultimately, its suitability for a set purpose. Trialability has long been recognised as one of the 5 factors influencing the adoption rate of innovation.
'Mannequin in Venice Shop Window'
by Michael Summers under a CC license

Indeed, trialability is normally available for a wide range of products and services and is not restricted solely to the innovative ones. Depending on the country, common goods, such as clothes, video games, household equipment, electronics, etc. can be tried for a short time and then returned for a refund if they are unsatisfactory. Rules do apply for this process, e.g., goods need to be returned in good condition. I've also heard of gallery owners that give their potential customers the possibility to "try" paintings or other art objects in their premises for a while before finalising their purchase. Such practice is also becoming increasingly common in high-tech, high-price equipment, such as digital cameras, camera lenses, etc.

Manufacturers of industrial equipment typically offer trial leases of their equipment to potential clients, possibly offering a pilot scale piece of equipment or provide access to actual scale equipment within their premises.

Software products also follow that trend with developers offering feature-limited trial versions, full-featured but limited time trial versions or online trial versions.

The benefits of trialability come at a cost, which corresponds to the cost of making and providing a trial version of the real thing together with a reasonable level of support.

But what happens with products that normally require considerable customisation before becoming fit for the client? And since trialability is a sought feature for innovative (and regular) products that, however, comes at a cost, does it actually hinder new small players entering the innovation game?

Monday, 1 June 2015

Office common space as a tool for collaboration

Often it is people that define the success of an organisation. Making the most out of them is essential. The various different approaches in organisational structures are meant to contribute to that. Using talented people as units or in teams in a balanced and effective way is another way to add to the boost. Increasing casual interaction, even if that is not directly work-related may be another, fun way to get better efficiency at the workplace. For the latter to happen, the way that the office space is structured is important.
'A coffee machine at work' by
Wolfgang Lonien under a CC license

Academic environment aside, common spaces in the workplace are considered by some employers as procrastination hot spots or, at best, temptation areas where employees lose valuable work time. Likewise, third parties, i.e., people outside an organisation may often perceive negatively the practice of employees spending time in common spaces provided within their organisation.

However, today, it is increasingly realised that the interaction among co-workers in the common spaces of a workplace can be beneficial for the organisation.

Monday, 25 May 2015

Good and bad things of service integration in travelling

I'm not a true frequent traveller but I do complete my fair share of miles per year, mostly to destinations abroad. One of the things that I find particularly convenient, especially when I travel for work, is service integration across different companies. It is something that is usually meant to save time and money, often carrying the peace of mind bonus, too!
'Travel' by Vasile Hurghis
under a CC license

Service integration is not a truly novel thing but the steps we 've been seeing so far were rather timid. Some, such as the code-sharing flights of different airlines, are well established as a practice. Package holidays and all-inclusive resorts also have a long history in most places. Others, such as booking travel chains consisting of, say, airport parking - flight - car rental - hotel, are a bit newer.

Judging service integration as a practice depends on what vantage point one chooses. For the traveller, the emphasis is usually on the convenience factor. Things may seem differently, however, if one chooses to focus on value or the impact on the ecosystem of businesses (or the ecosystem in regions, including people and businesses) affected by this practice.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Investing in employee education

'Classroom' by Emory Maiden
under a CC license
Lifelong learning is not a new concept. On the contrary, it is quite established, at least as a term. Today, there are numerous courses, taught and self-taught schemes on a wide variety of topics. Some of the training schemes are even available for free - usually in the form of online courses. In many countries there are also legal or financial incentives to encourage education and training in businesses and organisations. However, despite lifelong learning schemes being abundant, there are still plenty of employers that discourage or deny the participation of their employees in such schemes.

Often, the reasons they quote include the constantly high workload, the lack of resources to cover for the employees' "lost" training time, the lack of resources to sponsor the training and the lack of clear benefit from the training. There are also cases where the potential benefits of further education simply go unnoticed by the managers responsible. In a few cases,  unfortunately, it may also be the result of tainted management beliefs, where keeping the staff's skills stuck at a certain level is thought to ensure"stability" for the management crowd.

To be fair, allowing or providing access to education for the people of an organisation needs to take into account operational constrains. But it is also something that the organisation will eventually need to do despite whatever constrains. The case for investing in employee education is too strong to be ignored.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

The power of the crowd

Crowdsourcing is a process that utilises a large number of people to collect input, solve a problem or perform a task. It can take many different forms but it is commonly facilitated by a suitable internet platform.
'The crowd' by Matt Karp
under a CC licesne

Crowdsourcing has been successfully used in a wide variety of projects and functions ranging from astronomy, where people have been helping scientists classify galaxies, politics and policy development, legislation, where people are consulted on laws in preparation, etc. Specific problems can be helped by crowdsourcing techniques provided they can be broken down into small chunks in a form suitable to be presented and processed by an individual. For instance, the Foldit game helped scientists solve protein folding configuration problems and get ideas on how to refine their corresponding algorithms.

Beyond its huge potential in problem solving, crowdsourcing is considered to be a low-cost alternative. However, there are several limitations that need to be thought of before one reaches to such means.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Are we loosing our DIY skills?

A better question might be "do we do any DIY stuff at all?"

'Screwdriver' by Brent Thomson
under a CC license
Personally, I don't consider myself to be particularly skilled in making or fixing things. Despite that, I do enjoy attempting to fix things - at least those things that I believe I "understand" - which sometimes works great. Also I often take the opportunity to take things apart and then re-assemble them, when it comes to things that I have a duplicate of or that I'll be replacing shortly. From time-to time I also try some handiwork, such as painting, placing tiles or insulation, etc. To be honest, I'm not always successful but, as I said, I do enjoy the process. And whenever I do succeed, I end up saving some money, too.

I have the feeling, though, that the people willing to engage with such common DIY projects are getting less. I admit I haven't consulted any statistics so, maybe, that feeling of mine is wrong.

However, it is a fact that we are not given too many incentives towards DIY.

Monday, 27 April 2015

Using technology to improve communication during crises

'Hotline' by Alex under a CC license
Despite how advanced mankind may look, when disasters strike disruptions do take place and, sometimes, human lives are put at risk (the earthquake in Nepal being a recent major such natural disaster). Regardless of the type of disaster, communication is essential both for the people in the affected zone and for the staff of the response teams.

Under normal circumstances, in or close to urban areas, voice and data communication are not normally a problem, even when demand is high as, for instance, happens in big concerts, conferences or other major events.

But what are the challenges at the time of a major disaster? Are we ready to put the technology we have available into the best possible use in order to handle the crisis in the best possible way?

Sunday, 19 April 2015

The meaning of life, through the values of life

'Sunrise' by Pedro Moura Pinheiro
under a CC license
One can safely assume that that the question on the meaning of life is one of the most widely expressed questions in the world. One that has received considerable thought so far from a diverse range of scholars in the areas of philosophy, religion and science as well as individuals (and, well,  comedians, too), throughout human history.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

The amazing world of video games

Video games are amongst the non-essential things that compete for a share of our free time. Regardless of whether they are a good thing or a bad one, two things are quite certain:
'Day 220-the tetris' by ne!l chen
under a CC license
  • some of them - somehow - do manage to get hold of our attention and, thus, of a fair portion of the free time of a wide range of individuals, and 
  • they are the products of a very diverse market, often operating at the world-wide level, with noteworthy and increasing turnover share. 
Regardless of one 's feelings towards video games, their world - and impact - is practically hard to ignore.

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Intrapreneurship: should organisations embrace the on-the-clock pet-project approach?

In a business, pet-projects are small-scale projects of individual employees, under their full personal control, carried out within the organisation, often using resources of the organisation.

'Luminous idea' by Tiago Daniel
under a CC license
Pet-projects have gained visibility through the successful practices of companies such as Google, HP, 3M, Genetech, IBM and others. There, employees have been given the flexibility - and have even been encouraged - to allocate a percentage of their normal working time between 15 and 20% to a personal project of theirs that may be (and usually is) different to and independent from their ongoing work tasks.

But is the policy of allowing employee pet-projects worth it or is it just a (persistent but limited) hype?

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Finding the right balance between the group and the individual

'Balancing Rocks' by Viewminder
under a CC license
We often hear that successful organisations are based on effective teams. Almost equally often we hear that successful organisations are those with charismatic, efficient leaders. Those statements are complementing rather than contradicting each other. However, as the headcount and complexity of structure, operations and objectives of organisations increases, the importance of the teams that operate them becomes increasingly important. A major challenge in teams of a given composition is how to balance between the needs/ priorities of the individual and the needs/ priorities of the group.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Open source software: a helping hand for growth

Open source software is one of the things that occasionally gets entangled in the webs of ideology, politics and corporate marketing talk. However, open source software is a rather simple idea: Develop something, using an open, collaborative approach if possible, make it available to the public as a product, together with its source code and let them use it as they please. That simple.

Does this development model even make sense? Why would anybody do this? How can open source development pay their bills and, more importantly, who provides support to open source software users?

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Is e-mail dead?

I don't think so (as I've argued in the past). Not yet. But it has seen better days, at least as a means of personal communication.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Is internet access a critical service?

Internet access is a mission-critical factor for most modern businesses. Even for individuals, internet access is amongst the top priorities covering both work and leisure reasons and has increasingly found its way to bars, hotels of any price range, libraries and public spaces. At a political level, Information Society (a part of which is internet infrastructure and services) is considered to be a tool for maintaining and strengthening human rights, while there are voices supporting a further upgrade of internet access as a civil/ human right.

'Internet open 7 days til late'
by duncan c under a CC license
Having said that,  the penetration of internet access across the population varies a lot from country to country (and from region to region). Recent usage statistics indicate that internet access ranges between about 26% of the population for Africa to about 88% for North America. For Europe the figure is at about 70%, ranging from 42% for Ukraine to 98% for Luxembourg. While increasing trends exist in nearly all regions world-wide and internet has established presence even in remote areas, access to internet is still far from, say, access to mobile telephony services, where, for instance, in Europe there are 125 subscriptions per 100 inhabitants.

Despite the fact that a small-but-significant of the population don't have the means to access the internet, wherever internet access has been established it has had a marked impact on business practices, both in the private and the public sectors. Communication, ordering, data gathering, information dissemination, archiving, networking, etc., are processes that tend to be done exclusively via IT and internet resources in places where such resources are available, of course.

But is internet access being treated as a critical service?

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Optimising services in the public sector

Improving the public sector for the benefit of the citizens is, maybe, the (quiet but constant) wish of citizens and the (occasional but loud) promise of politicians. Quite rightfully so, especially in countries where considerable sums of public money are channelled to support the various social state functions, such as education, healthcare, welfare services, etc.
'Winner' by Alessandro Capurso
under a CC license

So, why not try to optimise the public sector as would any business do with its core processes?

Interesting idea, probably not-that-new, certainly always tempting, but with its pitfalls. So, not so fast!

Optimisation, in the mathematical sense, is the selection of the best element(s) against a pre-determined set of criteria. This implies that, in order to optimise something, one needs data to for performance and cost parameters. In the typical scenario, one would have a large set of variables, with the corresponding datasets, and would need to select the target for the optimisation process, providing any constrains that may apply to the variables. It sounds easy but it's not.

Monday, 23 February 2015

On open data

The idea of "open data" is not new but it seems to be gaining popularity, recently, especially for data generated by using public or publicly funded means.
'Molecular energy at work'
by Let Ideas Compete
under a CC license

"Open data", as a term is subject to different definitions and, thus, is applied in different ways. The most basic, clear-cut definition available dictates that "Open data and content can be freely used, modified, and shared by anyone for any purpose", although it is also possible to allow for mandatory attribution to the source.

At the legal level, things are a bit more complicated. The key problem of how to handle copyright in a way to reasonably achieve the intended objective of open data is not very hard to address. However, adding various restrictions to that, which in some cases is needed, makes it tricky. Taking into account that intellectual property legislation varies widely from country to country things become even trickier. To that end, the people at GNU and the Free Software Foundation have compiled a list of different free and non-free licenses commonly used for software and documentation projects. Further advice can be found, amongst others, on the World Bank.

Putting legal issues aside, open data, if used correctly, can help bring added value to societies. I understand that this is part of the typical pro-open data rhetoric but, for a moment, let's think of a couple of examples, besides transparency and accountability that seem to be well established already:

(a) A lot of money is invested, world-wide, on research and technological development activities. In cases where grants are provided on a competitive basis, applicants are commonly requested to demonstrate the relevance of their proposal to the current challenges and the scientific state-of-the-art. The latter normally takes a good literature review, while the former often relies on policy documents and some handful of studies that might be available on line. Even worse, during project implementation, project partners normally don't get access to additional data. Having relevant open data readily available would greatly help the research and innovation system in producing more relevant research proposals and better, closer-to-needs solutions.

(b) Competitiveness is considered to be a key for growth. But does this automatically translate to growth relevant to the needs of a society? Proving open data could stimulate growth-through-competitiveness around major needs. Further to that, it could facilitate adoption of best practices elsewhere, making it easier to compare cases and effects, hence, to identify solutions.

Is all data suitable for becoming open data? Clearly no. That wouldn't even apply to all data obtained through publicly funded means. Some data cannot not (and should not) become open because that would compromise national security or personal security, would limit or cancel a person's right to privacy, would possibly contradict court decisions and orders, etc. That means that it would be hard to apply a single approach to all kinds of data regarding their "openness".  It is still possible, though, to apply the open data policy on step at a time, or - better - a dataset at a time, keeping an eye of the effects, of course. In the future, it may be possible to define and implement a single, concise open data policy - at least for government data or data generated via public resources.

By the way, the open data call is finding top level support - at different intensities, perhaps - by entities such as the EU (, the US (, Japan (, etc. More importantly, the Open Government Partnership, launched in 2011, now has 65 member countries and publishes reports on those.

The video that follows has been made by the Open Government Partnership in promotion of Open Government.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Face-to-face meetings. Still much needed.

'Penguins have a meeting' by
Laura Taylor under a CC license
Businesses and people have grown past the local scale for quite some time now making communication an obvious priority. Despite the increasing number of communication means available, face-to-face meetings still persist. That happens in spite of their higher cost compared to other commonly available alternatives. Why is that? Are they truly irreplaceable?

In all the jobs I had so far, the king of communication means was e-mail. Formal or informal, long or short, pre-run by the management or not. Yes, I have had the experience of the occasional paper-printed letter and, unfortunately, a bit more often, the experience of its distant cousin, the fax message. And then it has been the phone. Plenty of my working hours have been spent there. Every once in while, though, I had to arrange for or participate in face-to-face meetings. So far, that has been with clients or potential clients, project partners, funding bodies, policy makers, working group members, colleagues and peers, top management executives, middle management, trainees, sector stakeholders, ..., you name it...

Have all those face-to-face meetings been worth the time and the cost, especially when international travel was involved? Yes. Even when the hard objectives of the meeting were not met.

You see, when you interact with others in the real word, you exchange much more information than that which words alone convey. This can be via body language, via facial expressions, via interactions with others that may be present but not part of the meeting, via comments that although irrelevant to the topic of the meeting convey information when perceived in context, etc. More importantly, this exchange of information goes both ways. At the end of most of my meetings I had a clear feeling on where things were going and that, in turn, helped me choose my follow-up actions accordingly.

Face-to-face meetings are engaging, too. Agreement (or disagreement) on actions feels firmer. Trust (or distrust) is established more easily and so are other things, such as tolerance, patience and understanding - all necessary from time-to-time in successful, durable collaborations - that we exhibit in our everyday life but are harder to do when using, say, written means of communication.

I admit that I haven't done any hard-fact cost-benefit analysis. But face-to-face meetings still get a lot of praise, having several valid reasons in their support. True, virtual meetings, including video conferences (conference calls never really appealed to me), have a lot of potential but they also come with their own disadvantages, as people in the meeting consultancy side say. Of course, when resources are running thin, one can always try to make the best out of virtual meetings. After all, face-to-face meetings do have their own peculiarities :-)

(as anything that involves people)


(but are still better than conference calls)

Sunday, 8 February 2015

One hundred posts

This is the 100th post I have prepared here.
'05 Birthday' by Marie Coleman
under a CC license

OK, I' m cheating a bit. Two of my texts have not been published yet, so, actually, it is 98 published post plus 2 on hold. Nonetheless, I consider it a personal milestone.

What started, at the end of 2009, mainly as the result of my curiosity to see what keeping a blog is all about, has survived until today. It has even managed to become (a tiny) part of my routine. Despite all the distractions I come across when drafting posts, some of which are inherent to the process. Flickr, for instance, where I normally scout for suitable photos (under a Creative Commons license, of course) to put at the top of each post, where I easily get carried away looking at people's photos.

Despite the years that have gone by, this is still a project under development. Altogether, the blog is still not fully mature in terms of content, with topics ranging from... well... the is no actual "range". Rather, whatever topic happens to cross my mind and bug me enough to look it up and write a few words on it. Understandably, it is still rather low on active readers. Not too encouraging but, at the end of the day, there are zillions of other blogs, of which many are backed up by talented people who take blogging much more seriously than me.

At any rate, though, having this blog has proven to be a great experience so far, educational, self-motivational and - above all - fun.

Many thanks to all of you, who stop by here!

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Antimicrobials use and antimicrobial resistance in humans and food-producing animals

EFSA, EMA and ECDC have published a joint report on the correlation of the consumption of antimicrobials by food-producing animals and humans and the occurrence of antimicrobial resistance. Not surprisingly, they found positive associations between antimicrobial consumption and antimicrobial resistance in humans and food-producing animals but also, in some cases, positive associations between antimicrobial consumption by food-producing animals and resistance to antimicrobial agents exhibited by bacteria in humans.
'Mycobacterium tuberculosis bacteria'
by NIAID under a CC license

Antimicrobial resistance is a topic that I re-visit from time-to-time. In brief, antimicrobial resistance is the phenomenon where a bacterium acquires resistance towards an antimicrobial agent. This may happen via a spontaneous mutation or via gene transfer. The emergence of antimicrobial resistance is a very important issue, regardless of whether the micro-organisms where resistance is developed are, themselves, pathogens or not. Bacteria have the ability for horizontal gene transfer. Thus, once the genes responsible for a specific antimicrobial resistance appear in a microbial population, the propagation of the genes to other microbial populations, including different bacteria, will take place at some point. Obviously, this becomes critical when pathogens acquire such genes, especially when taking into consideration that the antimicrobial agents (antibiotics) we have at hand to fight them are finite (and rather few).

The report of the three agencies highlights a problem that has been known for a while but sometimes still tends to be overlooked. There are vastly different practices across countries with regards to the way that antimicrobial agents are used by doctors and veterinarians to tread human and animal diseases, respectively. To make things worse, residues of veterinary medicines in food-producing animals may also remain in the meat at the time of consumption. As you may suspect, bad practices in either of those fields can give further rise to antimicrobial resistance and, in the longer run, can both accelerate the emergence of antimicrobial resistance of human pathogens.

Given the increasing globalisation of livestock production, as well as the increased mobility of people around the globe, it is necessary to boost efforts for better management of the use of antimicrobial agents, both against human and animal diseases.

This is no simple task, though.

Optimum management requires resources and infrastructure that differ a lot from place to place. Think, for instance, that keeping food-producing animals healthy without resorting to the use of antimicrobial agents needs hygiene, animal-housing and health monitoring practices that come at a cost. On top of that, such animals may be less productive in terms of meat. Such effects discourage the adoption of practices featuring responsible use of antimicrobial agents. There, education, as well as legal measures, have a strong role.

In any case, however, the fact that the task in question is difficult that doesn't mean that the effort should halt. At least not until we find other, reasonably effective ways to deal with pathogens.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Mouthwash: A case of disrupting the balance of the human-hosted bacterial ecosystem

It is well known the our bodies are inhabited by billions of microorganisms, mostly bacteria. The majority of those are benign and don't pose any threat to us, provided that we are reasonably healthy. Having said that, current thinking suggests that maintaining one 's health is tightly connected to the maintenance of properly functioning bacterial communities in our bodies.
'Vintage 80's Scope Mouthwash'
by twitchery under a CC license

Most of the things we do in our normal life affect the microorganisms living within us. Whatever we eat, for instance, affects our gut flora. Eating food with lots of fibre equals giving more food to the microrganisms of the gut - it may be even possible to fine tune gut flora this way. Showering and bathing alter the composition of our skin microbiota (there are times when clean skin becomes too clean, in a risky kind of way). Brushing our teeth changes the bacterial demographics of the oral cavity, etc.

Some - and, hopefully, most - of those changes have negligible effect of human health. Major disruptions, however, may lead to more pronounced outcomes. For instance, courses of antibiotics strongly reduce the gut flora populations, leaving ground for more resistant species to settle in and, if the are pathogens, to cause trouble to their host.

A common practice with potentially detrimental effects, which seems to go unnoticed, is the use of mouthwashs. Some of those, strongly impact the baterial populations within the mouth. That is a good thing if we are talking about bacteria that cause cavities or gingivitis but probably not so good if we are talking about the bacteria that can reduce dietary nitrate to nitrite.


OK, let's have a quick close look at that.

The topic of dietary nitrite (which originates from the nitrate that exists in foods, mostly leafy vegetables, which is converted to nitrite by the mouth bacteria) is still a bit controversial. The reason for that is that nitrites, which are further converted to nitrous oxide in the acidic environment of the stomach, can have good properties but also, possibly, some bad ones.

The good ones have to do with the function of the immune system, especially the organism 's defence in the gastrointestinal track against pathogens, the function of the cardiovascular system (improving blood flow, lowering blood pressure) and also the improvement of performance in moderate aerobic exercise. The bad ones are associated with cases where nitrosamine is formed, which is a carcinogen. The latter is, of course, of great concern. Nitrosamine can be formed by nitrites in the presence of secondary amines under the effect of high temperature or strongly acidic environment. Adding antioxidants (such as ascorbic acid) or keeping food processing temperature at lower level can help reduce considerably foodborne nitrosamine. Practically, nitrosamine levels from food intake are very low, though (e.g., considerably lower than the nitrosamine smokers receive from tobacco products).

So what is the bottom line?

As usual, it is a question of the right balance (as in the case of nutrition). Some mouthwashes can have an effect on nitrate-reducing bacteria and that may be not-so-good. But there may be very good reason to use them. Dental or gum problems pose considerable risks both in the long and in the short term. Really, a dentist should be the one to advise. Under normal circumstances, however, I thing that not overdoing it is quite important!

Sunday, 18 January 2015

The copy-and-paste approach of modern "journalists"

The internet together with the increasingly easy access to the online world have changed considerably the expectations we have from news and content providers, in general. Once upon a time, getting the daily newspaper and, perhaps, a weekly magazine was all it took to satisfy our hunger for news. Alas, not any more.
'What's the news' by ¡kuba!
under a CC license

The internet gave the power to news sites to add content dynamically, e.g., to post news as they happened. That has fuelled the page-refresh urge of ours to extents that, sometimes, may come close to clinical addiction.

The internet also gave the chance to a large number of people to get into the news or content-providing business. An increasing number of news sites has been appearing, some without a corresponding printed publication, which, together with the ever increasing number of blogs have created a universe with the sole purpose of propagating "fresh" information.

That's a good thing, isn't it? Well, not necessarily.

Many of news sites are, in fact, just collection of re-posts of news items. A simple copy-and-paste job. Often, without even commentary or, worse, with the original commentary and, sometimes, even worse, without attribution to the original source, too. There are also cases of circulating redacted, shortened or unfinished stories, which can lead to confusion.

Having news-hungry readers and a system that can disseminate news stories fast is certainly a good thing. At the same time, however, publishing, even online, has costs. Person-hours that need to be compensated, bandwidth costs, hosting costs, software development costs, intellectual property costs, legal services costs, etc., depending on the type of the site and the group behind it. Then there is the quality factor. Getting the story in the first place, cross-checking it, getting more data, writing the original article, reviewing and proof-reading it, updating it if needed, etc., need resources. All those,  are essential parts of the so-called "investigative journalism" thing that we, the public, are desperately in need for. Similar things also apply for non-professionals, too, who also devote part of their free time, energy and enthousiasm into preparing and publishing content, despite the fact that they may not always be after revenue, per se.

The copy-and-paste journalism, usually, has little to offer. Contrary to that, despite the apparent additional publicity of the original content, it twists the income model original content providers typically aim for, i.e., traffic converted to advertising revenue. To make things worse, it discourages readers from visiting the original sources, even if those is referenced in the copy-and-paste posts. That is because such news sites tend to offer quick turnaround of posts and, thus, are better suited for our continuous news-check addiction, much better than, say, a newspaper site, where published articles persist for longer. Additionally, there is little reason to visit the news source, if the reader has already read the article. Plus, reading online, nowadays, has its own challenges, too - as I have written previously. Social media, with their sharing capabilities, can - sometimes - make things even worse for the original content creators.

To be clear and fair, the rationale above does not apply to sites that quote and link to discrete news items or articles and provide further commentary, additional content, etc. Those are actually providing derivative work, which would normally be legally (and ethically) OK. Also, copy-and-paste journalism can be found in the printed media, too. And, finally, online journalists do face challenges that may encourage less thorough practices, including, but not limited to, the mandate to hunt for readers' clicks that can bring the much-needed advertising income.

Is copy-and-paste posting useless then? It depends. 

Copy-and-paste sites and their use of social media are particularly handy when one needs to distribute information as widely as possible. A good example is press releases, especially anything related to consumer safety. Overall, however, I would feel that the disadvantages outweigh the advantages - but that 's a personal opinion.

Can things improve? Possibly. 

One could try enforce the copyright legislation but this varies vastly from place to place and it costs, sometimes a lot. It also creates a negative overall feeling amongst content providers and readers, which would certainly not be of help. A better option would be to raise the journalism bar: readers should learn to ask for more investigative journalism, while at the same time original content providers should try to adapt to the fast publishing rate the online communities want. Content replicators will, of course, always have the right to upgrade their status to content creators or contributors.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

When pictograms use icons of the past...

'YVR Pictograms' by
Tom Magliery under  a CC license
A pictogram is an image, often depicting a physical object. that conveys a specific message. Pictograms are meant to facilitate the perception of a message, regardless of the language skills of the people exposed to them. Well, the latter in some cases is rather optimistic. Of course, in the case of widely used pictograms, such as road signs, very high positive recognition rates can be expected. But is that the case for all pictograms?

Pictograms have been increasingly used everywhere. The chances are that the ones we come across daily go much beyond the Public information symbols (of ISO 7001:2007), the laundry symbols or the chemical hazard symbols (GHS 2013 revision). Indeed, remote controls, televisions, software programs, smartphones, etc., rely a lot on the use of pictograms, rather than descriptive text, in order to be operated by the user as intented.

Some symbols are abstract so we get to learn their meaning. For instance, the volume level symbol on a remote normally looks like that:

Although the displayed symbol on a laptop might be like that:


Other pictograms are more interesting. For instance, the symbol for saving a file:

That is a 3.5'' diskette and while I have used plenty of those, the new generations may have never held one in their lives. The same goes for opening a file. The filing system depicted is still in use in many places but is becoming increasingly uncommon sight:

The paste function is associated with a clipboard icon. Clipboards are still in use but, again, they are not that common amongst young people. Palettes are not a common sight, too, although they are in use by professionals. Still, they are used in several pieces of drawing software.

Voice messages are often behind a pictogram that depicts a magnetic tape:

E-mail clients and webmail services typically use the old, common snail-mail envelope:

Some older e-mail clients used the US-style mailbox with the flag:

Many sound-processing-capable programs use the old-style microphone symbol to indicate record:

There are numerous other cases. For instance the old-school phone handset pictogram (that means "make a call"), the bookmark symbols, the calliper symbols (for measuring distances in photo-editing software), the gear or wrench symbols in software (usually leading to the settings sections), the film reel symbol (indicating video), the album symbol (indicating, well, a digital album), the binoculars and the magnifying glass symbols (search function - OK - both of these are in regular use), etc. But I think I'll end this section with the rabbit-eared TV symbol:

Similar problems exist in other fields, as well. Language expressions may refer to objects or practices of the past that are no longer used. That includes jargon, too (e.g., "radio buttons" in questionnaires that allow the respondent to select only one option). There are also sounds we don't hear often any more (such as the typewriter clicks in the typewriter song).

Employing pictograms to convey messages is not an easy task. Sometimes, they are artistic (e.g., pictogram movie posters). Sometimes they are fun but sometimes not so much. In some cases, if the pictogram fails to be understood, it could even be dangerous. This is particularly important when posting pictograms that will stay in place for tens or hundreds (or more) of generations, such as the warning signs in nuclear waste land burial sites.

It is clear that our world will continue to rely - increasingly - on pictograms. I'm sure that, as time passes, designers will get better in conveying messages in a graphical way and we will become better in interpreting in-context symbols.

Note: Clipart symbols obtained from CLKER (and are thought to be in the public domain).

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Doing good

Doing good or, at least, doing something good, is very much within the spirit of these days (Christmas, New Year's Eve, Epiphany). People are willing to be more open, to give to those in need, to contribute to good causes and to feel that they are doing their (little) bit to make world (or, even, a tiny part of it) a better place.
'Donation box' (cropped
and size-reduced), originally
by Yukiko Matsuoka
under a CC licesne

I won't say that doing good is in our very nature, while - to some extent - it most probably is. Altruism is a characteristic that has been examined by many different viewpoints (scientific, evolutionary, philosophical, religious, etc.) and, while not unique to humans, it has contributed to what humanity is today.

Instead, I'll stick to the simplistic view that, given the right chance and the right environment, most people would choose to do good, regardless of the exact reason behind their choice.

Indeed, our social ecosystem includes numerous local, trans-regional and international organisations devoted to good causes. Charities, as non-governmental organisations, have a recognised status in many countries, giving them privileges, such as tax exemptions or administrative simplifications, so as to facilitate their work. Some doing-good-oriented organisations go after a higher profile (and have catchy names, e.g., the Do Something Great Today Foundation, Doing Something Good, DoGoodVolunteer, etc.). Some are lucky enough to have lots of resources, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and can, thus, work on diverse projects and places. Others, like the Medecins sans frontieres are much more "thematically" focused.

There are also non-governmental charity organisations that are contributing to society in a very different way. Think of the Mozilla Foundation (that is behind the Firefox browser), the Wikimedia Foundation (which is behind Wikipedia), the Electronic Frontier Foundation, etc. These are organisations with a mission that is relevant and has an impact to the public' s normal, everyday life.

There also non-profits that provide funding mechanisms to help those in need. Kiva, for instance, facilitates people to provide microloans to people all around the world. While those are not donations but loans (i.e., people will have to return the capital + interest) they are thought to help local development since they address "investments" that are not within the core business of typical banks. They may provide, for instance, the money a farmer needs to get fertiliser for this year's crop, i.e., they normally provide small amounts of money.

Microcredit organisations are not the only type of crowdfunding. The crowdfunding category is very diverse and, altogether, as an alternative way to get funding is becoming increasingly available and popular. Although not a clear charity mechanism, crowdfunding platforms allow people with a vision to address the wide public and ask for support. The rules of the game vary greatly amongst the different platforms. Indiegogo and Kickstarter are popular examples for individuals (you can also have a look at the 7 most supported Indiegogo campaigns and at the most funded Kickstarter projects) but there numerous other services with very different operation styles, some of which are best suited for businesses.

In other cases, there are business entities that include charity support in their business model (e.g., Humble Bundle Inc.). And, of course, there is the - thankfully increasing - trend of corporate social responsibility, where enterprises - of any size or business sector - give back to the society.

Then there is volunteering (e.g., Global Volunteer Network, International Volunteer Programs Association, etc.. As a means, it has been used extensively both at times/ places of need and as an additional assistance to the normal mechanisms in place.

So, are we having enough charity to make sure that our world is enjoying a life that meets - at least - the minimum "acceptable" standards?

No. Really, we are far from that.

The resources made available through our current charity ecosystem, together with the resources allocated by governments, international organisations, etc., cannot meet the actual demand, which is substantial, even in middle- and high-income countries (albeit for different things than low-income countries).

Yes, there are also concerns regarding efficiency in the mechanisms used to channel resources from those who provide them to those who need them. Fraud is another concern that occasionally arises.

But that doesn't make giving, donating, volunteering and supporting good causes pointless. Despite current shortcomings, doing good always counts!

Even if it helps a single individual for a finite amount of time...

Full disclosure and disclaimer: As of writing this post, I have not been affiliated to or have been supported by any of the organisations mentioned in this post. Also, I have not specifically enquired for or used their services. Thus, I am in no position to endorse them (or not) and my mentioning them herein is not meant to constitute an endorsement. Any organisation or organisation type mentioned in this post is for information purposes only. Most likely, there many similarly-minded organisations out there. If you want to donate or contribute to a cause or if you want to receive assistance, do take the time needed to find and compare the alternatives suitable for you.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

(Now is the) Time for Reflection

People say that defining goals in life is important. I agree but defining, aggregating and putting those goals on a list at a finite moment in time is not necessarily the way for me to go. At least not until I give myself some time for reflection. After all, it seems that there is some scientific evidence supporting that reflection helps self-improvement.

'Tree Reflection' by Doug Wheller
under a CC license
It is amazing how my self-criticism for events and experiences of my recent past often matures as time passes and, while my initial views are rarely overturned, I end-up having personal case-study "packages" that include the event, the reaction (of myself and the others) and its immediate and long term effect. This may sound a bit pompous (and tediously complex) but it really isn't.

I'll give you an example.

The person that tends to point out a project's difficulties and risks is, usually, not too popular in a group. One would think that identifying shortcomings at the early stage would be useful for a project's ultimate success. However, one should also take into account the psychological impact of this activity on the others. In a balanced group of co-workers, where ambitious planners and careful analysts coexist, discussing on potential difficulties works as intended. In poorly populated teams, however, that is not the case. Talking about the risks could discourage the entire group in the same way that, had there been no careful analyst in the team, the group would have been carried away into selecting over-ambitious objectives.

During 2014 I had the chance to find myself into several different groups and had the opportunity to see the effect of interventions of group members and me at the various stages of different projects. The "carry-home" messages I ended up with are:
  • In group work, it's always good to talk about potential problems at an early stage, ideally, when a project is being planned. At later stages, it is still necessary but a group talk may not be the best way to do it. Discussing with the group leader may be better. Openly highlighting risks when the work is in progress can contribute to a toxic environment, especially when the project is behind schedule and the team has not been properly formulated. Toxic environments are not good. Not good at all!
  • If the one talking about potential risks receives no feedback or constructive criticism or no discussion on mitigation measures takes place, that is an indication that the group cannot properly process the information. One should then try to guide the group into addressing the issues raised. Sometimes the latter is more productive to be discussed bilaterally with the group leader.
  • One-sided discussion on a project's risks and difficulties need to be balanced by documented optimism. If there is none to present the latter then it would be of great value if the same person would think on and present both sides. It is not always easy, though.
  • Collective memory is important in work groups, too. Team members should be given the chance to reflect, even informally. It helps learning and, besides that, helps identify group dysfunctions or tensions that may need to be resolved.
  • Never ignore the emotional impact that words and actions have on people. Or, in other words, constructive criticism works constructively when spoken in a polite and encouraging way.
None of the points above is really rocket science. To the contrary, most are common-sense really. However, experiencing them and then reflecting on them is what really adds to the individual 's skills.

Thursday, 1 January 2015


'Fireworks' by Jeton Bajrami
under a CC license
Happy New Year!

May it be peaceful, creative and productive!