Wednesday, December 30, 2015

FTTN in Canberra

at the Canberra Times newspaper asked me about the VDSL2 upgrade iiNet is offering in Canberra. This is an upgrade to the more than decade old Transact Fiber to the Node (FTTN) system, with faster modems. It is similar to the FTTN system proposed for the NBN by the current government, but the Canberra system is superior as the copper cable used was laid especially for FTTN and is not old telephone cable.
 "ANU adjunct lecturer Tom Worthington says the Canberra system has the advantage because there is new cable installed to homes, whereas for the NBN the plan is to re-use old phone cables". From  "iiNet offering VDSL2 in Canberra to compete with NBN", by Alexandra Back, Sydney Morning Herald and Canberra Times, December 29, 2015

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Building a Local Entrepreneurial Community

Apparently I asked one of the libraries I am a member of to get the book "Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City by Brad Feld (2012). I don't recall asking for it, or where I heard about the book. It must have been months ago, when I was writing a course on Innovation for Canberra university students, particularly those participating in the Canberra Innovation Network. The book has just arrived, too late to use in the course, but is none the less useful.

As the name suggests, the book is for those building, a local startup community. As in Canberra, this can involve entrepreneurs (and those wanting to be), governments, universities, investors (be they angels or otherwise), mentors and service providers (in a gold rush those who provide shovels do well).

The book is 224 pages and based on the author's experience in Boulder USA, referred to as the "Boulder Thesis". Unfortunately the book is very USA-centric. As an example it is not explained until the second chapter what "Boulder" is (a city of 100,000 people in the state of Colorado, USA). The author suggests Boulder may have the highest  density of entrepreneurs per head of adult population of any city in the world. However, I suspect that some small university cities may have higher entrepreneurial density. As an example, Cambridge (UK) has a population of about 130,000 and significant start-up activity.

In Chapter two the author takes us through Boulder's pre-Internet start-up era, the Internet bubble and its intimidate aftermath. In Chapter three we learn some theory of what makes for a vibrant startup community and then it is straight into the "Boulder Thesis":
"1. Entrepreneurs must lead the startup community.
2. The leaders must have a long-term commitment.
3. The startup community must be inclusive of anyone who wants to participate in it.
4. The startup community must have continual activities that engage the entire entrepreneurial stack."

From:  Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City, Brad Feld, 2012, Chapter 3.
This would seem to be a useful guide for any community: it should be lead by people from the community, by people with a long term commitment and be inclusive. However, I suggest it is unrealistic to expect everyone to commit to a twenty year plan. There has to be scope for people who have a year or two, a week or two, or an hour or two. If only those with total, long dedication are included, then most people and particularly those with family and other commitments, will be excluded.

In Chapter four Feld argues that the leaders in a start-up community must be the entrepreneurs, but "The best startup communities are loosely organized and consist of broad, evolving networks of people." He is skeptical of the value of government officials who are officially supposed to help with start-ups, such as economic development directors. He sees government programs as well intentioned but not long term enough to be of real value, with staff who do not understand entrepreneurship.

Feld sees government as not being good at investing in entrepreneurial activity. In general I would agree with this. One exception is the ACT Government's investment in the Canberra Innovation Network (CBRIN). The government provided office space and funding for some training and start-up competitions. CBRIN's office and its activities have the low cost, start-up feel to them, not like a glossy government development department. As well as inculcating people from the private sector and the universities with the entrepreneurial spirit, CBRIN also changed with teaching retiring public servants how to move to the private sector. This has the subtle effect of spreading the entrepreneurial approach throughout the public sector.

Also in Chapter four Feld expresses skepticism over the idea that startups need to be near a major university. However, he does agree that human capital (students and university academics) are useful, particularly students. This would agree with the main thesis of the "Cambridge Phenomenon", that the students and staff were important to the development of start-ups around the University of Cambridge (UK).

Feld is less impressed with the usefulness of research facilities at universities or of the formal transfer of licensed research results for commercialization. When I visited the University of Cambridge om years ago to discuss that issue, I found an interesting form of creative ambiguity: no one seemed to agree as to who owned the IP from research. Rather than be a negative, this seemed to provide flexibility for start-ups.

Feld also seems ambivalent as to the role of venture capital investors, seeing them as essential, but often at cross purposes with the entrepreneurs. He is more positive about mentors, almost idealizing them. It has taken me years to be comfortable is the role of mentor to student start-up projects. I was never sure how firm I should be in what advice I gave the students. When I noticed that my students were winning start-up competitions, I stopped worrying so much and assumed I must be doing something right.

A group which Feld mentions only briefly are the service providers, who provide legal, accounting, marketing and staffing advice to start-ups. In events at CBRIN I have met quite a few people from these companies. They seem ready to provide some free advice, in the hope of getting paid work later.

Surprisingly Feld spends more time on the role of large companies, such as Google and Microsoft in helping start-ups. Google has an R&D office in Sydney and comes to Canberra a couple of times a year to recruit university graduates. Many of these people end up in Sydney. Google hosts IT related meetings in its Sydney office (such as the Sydney Linux User Group, lovingly known as SLUG).

The most fun part of Feld's book and the fun part of start-ups is chapter seven on "Activities and Events". He discusses the Young Entrepreneurs' Organization (now known as the Entrepreneurs' Organization) and the Boulder Denver New Tech MeetupBoulder Open coffee Club, Boulder Startup-weekend, CU New Venture Challenge, Boulder Startup Week, Entrepreneurs Foundation of Colorado (EFCO). The point here seemed to be about getting people together in person.

Curiously what is lacking from Feld's analysis, given that many start-ups are about the Internet, is the use of the Internet for collaboration. While I agree it does help for people to meet in person, at least once, many cannot spend time at face to face events. There seems to be a lack of discussion of on-line tools, as if this would undermine the start-up ethos.

One of the impediments to the entrepreneurial community is the jargon. For example, what is an "accelerators"? For startups, this is a short term program designed to provide the venture with advice, training. In chapter eight Feld gives the example of the Techstars accelerator program. He contrasts these accelerators with "Incubators" being set up to help businesses at any time, whereas an "accelerator" is a fixed term program the start-up is run through. There may be accelerators and incubators associated with each other, for example the KILN Incubator and the GRIFFIN Accelerator  are both run out of the Canberra Innovation Network office. As Feld pints out there can also be accelerators run out of universities, although I have seen one example where the accelerator office were very neat and tidy, not nothing seemed to be happening there.

In chapter 9 Feld addresses the role of universities, starting with something called the "Silicon Flatirons Center" at the University of Colorado Law School. The significance of "Flatiron" was lost on me, but this seems to be a center for technology policy research. The problems with limiting examples to Boulder is most apparent in this chapter of Feld's book. The University of Colorado Boulder no doubt shares problems of engagement with entrepreneurial engagement, limited entrepreneurial programs and siloing of programs with other institutions. But there are universities elsewhere in the world which have overcome these problems. Feld's solution is the students. In Canberra this is shown by the enthusiasm with which they have taken up the Innovation ACT program, where students (and other) can form teams and compete to produce a business plan for a startup and ANU TechLauncher, where students undertake a project course to produce a product or service (with the help of alumni as mentors).

The point at which I started to disagree with Feld was chapter ten "The Difference Between Entrepreneurs and Government". He says "Great entrepreneurs are intensely self-aware... Entrepreneurs fail often and own it; government leaders rationalize why something didn’t go their way." However, this criticism of government could be applied to an established organization, public or private. No one running an organization is going to want to admit they do not know what they are doing or have made a mistake. It is very easy for an Entrepreneur who has no customers to say something went wrong, it is much harder for someone running a service lived depend on.

Feld says "Entrepreneurs work bottom up and government works top down". As he says Government has hierarchy, infrastructure, staff and rules. However, there is innovation in the public sector and it does happen bottom up. This innovation usually happens despite the organization structure and rules, not because of it. As an example in the mid 1990s a group of public servants set out to introduce the Internet to the Australian Government. This was not done as a result of any central mandate, quite the opposite (it was done in contravention of central mandate). Part of the process was to change the minds of the senior management and lastly to allow the political level to take credit, retrospectively.  That might sound subversive, but it is how change happens in government and large private sector organizations. This is not usually acknowledged but is not secret. As an example I gave a talk about it in Canberra in 1995: "Internet in Government" and this was reported in the media as  "The cabal that connected Canberra" (1995) and detailed in Peter Chen's 2000 ANU PHD thesis. An interesting experiment is currently being conducted by the Australian Government, with the creation of the Digital Transformation Office. The DTO aims to create "Simpler, clearer, faster public services". The immense challenge is to do this while keeping government reliable and equitable. DTO might benefit from running internal entrepreneur programs and training, or joining in those provided for  students and the public.

Working in and around bureaucracies is an area which is perhaps neglected in the education of entrepreneurs. Many revolutionary business ideas depend on having laws changed. An example are share applications such as Uber and AirBnB, where individuals provide a service to others. Building an IT system to make this possible is the easy part, the difficulties come in getting around the many of laws covering the existing commercial providers of such services. Entrepreneurs might be able to learn from the way public servants effect change.

In chapter twelve Feld.


Feld, B. (2012). Startup communities: Building an entrepreneurial ecosystem in your city. John Wiley & Sons.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Wind Turbine Global Control Center Opens in Canberra Innovation Precinct

On Monday, Simon Corbell, ACT Minister for the Environment, opened Windlabs headquarters at 60 Marcus Clarke Street in Canberra. Wind farms in Australia, and around the world, will be monitored and controlled from here.

Windlabs new HQ is at the north-west corner of what I call the "Canberra Start-up Business Boomerang". These are the city blocks between the Australian National University campus and the Canberra CBD. In the geographic center of this area is the Canberra Innovation Center, which is surrounded by numerous technology and education companies, as well as  related government agencies.

ps: In 2010, my student Sam Fernandes, undertook "Project Cervantes: Can a web server be powered by a wind turbine?". The answer was "no", but he found, that under ideal conditions 40% of the power for a data centre could be provided by the wind.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Open Government Partnership

Greetings from the OGP Australia Information Session at the Inspire Centre, University of Canberra. This is on the Open Government Partnership (OGP) and is to help develop an Australian Government National Action Plan by July 2016. Canada and the UK signed up in 2011 and so Australia has a bit of catching up to do. Perhaps the Australian Government could skip a few steps, and not for the first time, prepare a draft from the Canadian and UK plans.

It happens that the "Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance" is located at the University of Canberra and might be able to assist.
"OGP’s vision is that more governments become sustainably more transparent, more accountable, and more responsive to their own citizens, with the ultimate goal of improving the quality of governance, as well as the quality of services that citizens receive. This will require a shift in norms and culture to ensure genuine dialogue and collaboration between governments and civil society." From OGP Mission and Plans.

Ruxcon Security Conference Teaching Hacking Techniques in Australia

Greetings from the ANU in Canberra, where Bob "The Builder" Edwards is speaking on "Ruxcon 2015 Computer Security Conference: A Brief Report"
his attendance at the Ruxcon 2015 Security Conference in Melbourne. The conference is sponsored by the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD). As well as the usual presentations, the conference has a Black Bag Competition where delegated attempt to covertly access a computer in the conference hotel and Capture The Flag. Presenters discuss how to hack systems, so as to alert system owners to the problems and to better educate security professionals. One point was that computer systems are getting more complex, which opens up  more security vulnerabilities.

The interesting question for me is how to have some of the fun and excitement of such events in an educational environment, in a way which is safe. One issue is to make sure that students understand the legal and ethical issues involved. Even when the intention is benign there is the problem of preventing educational experiments escaping and causing damage.  One way to address this by having a "Cyber Range" which provides and isolated computer environment to test security. The new Australian SDN Test-Bed, is also intended for security research.

The PM announced a $30M "Cyber Security Growth Centre". It would be interesting to include some contests in this.

Friday, December 11, 2015

E-waste Collection No Longer Operating in Canberra?

Last Sunday I took a computer monitor to the ACT Government's Mitchell Resource Management Centre. I expected to to be directed to a row of bins for computers, TVs and other presorted electronic equipment, as previously. But instead I was directed to a mixed pile of electrical equipment, including washing machines, TVs, printers, and electronic items. Has the ACT Government withdrawn from the  National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme? Is the ACT Government handling e-waste in accordance with local, national and international law, which requires it  to be treated as hazardous.

At the moment I am revising my "ICT Sustainability" course for students at ANU. If e-waste is no longer being recycled in Canberra, I will need to revise the materials chapter.

How do people ask for information?

Greetings from the famous room N101 at the Australian National University in Canberra, where Professor Douglas Oard, from University of Maryland, is speaking on 'Building Search Engines for the “Bottom Billion”'. The example he gave was of an Indian farmer who had some spots on their crop and wanted help in finding out what it was. The intended interface is a mobile "feature phone".

Professor Oard first described work by IBM India using audio information indexed by numbers which was accessible via a mobile phone. He commented this would not scale and non-literate users do not understand the concept of a hierarchical menu. He then described a method for matching audio called "Query by babbling" (Oard, 2012).

Finding a way to provide information to those with limited literacy is a worthwhile research area. However, there is extensive social science research on verbal communication which the researchers might want to review for insights into how people formate queries. I have come across some of this literature as a student of education, such as Venkataraman and Prabhakar (2014).

Also it happens I spent three weeks in an Indian village and had to communicate with the plumber, the miller and other trades. One insight from this is that they do not use just one language, they use a mix. Also hand gestures play a role.

Smart phones are becoming increasingly affordable and this might provide the opportunity for a visual and audio interface. This interface might also have an educational function, displaying words and teaching written communication, while providing a verbal interface.

Audio interfaces are also useful for those who are literate, but not able to use their hands for typing and do not have sufficient attention to compose a formal audio text query. This applies in formal teams, such as those controlling a metro, military command centers, and flight deck crews. These have been extensive studies of how these people communicate. Part of this is about the formal use of language for directed commands and queries. But part of it is the team members overhearing conversations and acting without being directly asked to do so. Automated systems could be good in this role, where they could eavesdrop on the human conversation, responding and taking action, where appropriate.


Oard, D. W. (2012, November). Query by babbling: a research agenda. In Proceedings of the first workshop on information and knowledge management for developing region (pp. 17-22). ACM.
Venkataraman, B. & Prabhakar, T. (2014). Changing the Tunes from Bollywood’s to Rural Livelihoods — Mobile Telephone Advisory Services to Small and Marginal Farmers in India: A Case Study, in Ally, M., & Tsinakos, A. (2014).

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Search Engines for Low-literacy Users

Professor Douglas Oard, University of Maryland, will speak on 'Building Search Engines for the “Bottom Billion”', in the famous room N101 at the Australian National University in Canberra, 11am, 11 December 2015.

This is an event in the CSIRO IR & Friends series, in conjunction with RSCS HCC & Friends.
About three quarters of a billion people are functionally illiterate, meaning that they have no more than a very basic ability to read or write.  Modern search engines are powerful tools for much of the world’s population, but if we are to build search engines for illiterate and low-literacy users we will need to come at the problem differently.  I’ll begin by describing two lines of work on this problem in the broad area known as Information and Communication Technology for Development (variously, ICTD or ICT4D), one that seeks to leverage visual interfaces, numeracy, and limited literacy, and a second that seeks to leverage speech.  I’ll then focus the rest of the talk on the work that we have been doing on speech-to-speech retrieval.
The key challenge that we have sought to address is that most illiterate and low-literacy users don’t speak any language for which we have the sorts of highly engineered Large-Vocabulary Continuous Speech Recognition (LVCSR) systems on which much of the recent work on speech retrieval depends.  A shared-task evaluation in MediaEval started to tackle that challenge in 2011 using a Spoken Term Detection (STD) evaluation.  The results there were promising, showing that systems could often recognize single terms in continuous speech based on examples, without any foreknowledge of the language.  In our work, we have sought to build on one of these MediaEval systems to apply this STD capability to perform ad hoc ranked retrieval (i.e., finding recorded content that is most likely to satisfy a user’s information need).
I’ll describe the “Query by Babbling” interaction paradigm that we have been exploring, in which we are exploring what would happen if instead of short queries and long result sets, as is appropriate for text, we had long queries and short result sets, perhaps a better approach for speech.
I’ll then describe a test collection we have built using spoken content from a voice forum site used by farmers in Gujarat, India (speaking in Gujarati), some ranked retrieval systems that we have evaluated using that collection, and the results that we have obtained.
I’ll finish up with a few thoughts on where the remaining hard spots are with this technology, and what I see as next steps to address those challenges.  This is joint work with Jerome White (NYU Abu Dhabi), Nintendra Rajput (IBM India Research Lab) and Aren Jansen (at the time at the Johns Hopkins HLTCOE).

Doug Oard


Douglas Oard is a Professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, with joint appointments in the College of Information Studies (Maryland’s iSchool) and the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies (UMIACS).  Dr. Oard earned his Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from the University of Maryland.  His research interests center around the use of emerging technologies to support information seeking by end users.  Additional information is available at

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Energy, Climate Change Research and Education After Paris

The Australian National University has a series of events, starting this week, on energy and climate change:

ANU Energy Change Institute Open Day 2015,
ive from the UNFCCC Paris conference by Associate Professor Frank Jotzo. I will be presenting a poster on teaching ICT Sustainability on-line around the globe.

Solar PV - Changing the Energy Landscape, Monday, 7 December 2015, 5:15 pm, Dr Pierre Verlinden, Vice-President and Chief Scientist at Trina Solar

2015 ANU Energy Update, Tuesday, 9am, 8 December 2015, with Mr Ian Cronshaw, International Energy Agency (IEA) and Byron Washom, UC San Diego's Microgrid

Deciphering the Paris Climate talks: where to next?,

Associate Professor Frank Jotzo (back from the UNFCCC Paris conference)

Friday, December 04, 2015

Australian Open Government Consultations

The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet is consulting on an Australian Open Government National Action Plan, 14 to 18 December in Brisbane 14 Dec, Sydney 15 Dec, Canberra 16 Dec and Melbourne 17 Dec. The Canberra event will also be webcast: (Twitter hashtag #ogpau).

Hopefully this will be more successful than the PM&C 2011 consultations on Cyber Security, which has produced no white paper, four years later.

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Export Electrical Energy on Ships

At the Canberra Innovation Network tonight an executive from a local renewable power start-up mentioned that there was a proposal to export electrical power from Australia. This would be done with a high voltage cable through Indonesia. As a thought experiment I suggested exporting a ship load of rechargeable batteries (just as Sneakernet can transport comparable amounts of data to a fiber optic cable).

A quick back of the envelope calculation

A Lithium battery has an energy density of about 2.63 MJ/l, whereas fuel oil is 35.8 Mj/l, 14 times as dense.

The Tesla Powerwall has 10 kWh capacity and is
1300 x 860 x 180 mm (0.2 m3). A standard 20 foot shipping container is 38.5 m3, which would fit about 191 Powerwalls, with 1.91 MWh. The largest ships can carry 18,270 containers, with 3,500 MWh. A HV DC cable can carry 6,000 MW, so there would need to be a ship arriving every half hour t provide this capacity.

However, a major issue with renewable power is storage. The power provided by a storage battery is much more valuable than that from a cable, as the battery stores power. If renewable power has to be stored in batteries anyway, then it might be feasible to transport them in some circumstances.  

ps: None of this had anything to do with the event  I was at, which was a debate about programming languages and the eternal golden braid. ;-)