On Uber in London

(Note: This mostly comes from something I wrote on Facebook. So I thought I may as well broaden it out and publish it here.)

TFL has decided it will not award an operator licence to Uber from 30 September. In essence, it is saying that Uber must cease operations in London.

TFL says that the reason’s behind this Uber’s approach and a “lack of corporate responsibility in relation to a number of issues which have potential public safety and security implications.”

These include:

  • Its approach to reporting serious criminal offences.
  • Its approach to how medical cetificates are obtained.
  • It’s approach to how Enhanced Disclosure and Barring Service checks are obtained.
  • Its approach to explaining the use of Greyabll in London, software that could be used to block regulatory bodies from gaining full access to the app and prevent officials from undertaking regulatory or law enforcement duties.

In response, Uber released the following:

It speaks of 3.5m Londoner who use the app, and the 40,000 drivers they have on their books. They claim their drivers undergo the same background checks as black cab drivers, and that “Greyball” was never used in the UK “for the purposes cited by TFL.”

However I don’t think their response is quite a point by point rebuttal of TFL’s accusations. The Metropolitan Police, for example, say that Uber has in fact failed to report crimes, and claims that it is more worried about its reputation.

Uber’s response also doesn’t explicitly say that “Greyball” was not used in any shape in the UK.

Safety and regulatory issues aside, a lot of people are disappointed. Not the representatives of black cabs of course. They’re delighted.

But what of the 40,000 drivers. They’re going to lose their jobs are they not?

Well, not exactly. First of all, Uber goes out of its way to say that these are not jobs. Uber drivers are self-employed, and as such, have no real protection or employment rights. That obviously saves Uber a lot of money.

Personally I can see both good and bad sides of Uber. They’re revolutionary, but they’re also incendiary. They undercut everyone else in the market, but they do this by effectively subsidising each trip. They can’t burn cash forever, but if they kill the competition, then they have it to themselves.

Black cabs, on the other hand, are protectionist, and that too is unsustainable in the 21st century. Their pricing is too high (although their prices appear even worse if Uber rides are subsidised), and they seem to believe they have god-given rights to the roads ahead of nearly all other vehicles. (Cf. Objections to just about any and all cycle infrastructure).

But Uber users can relaxe. In reality, nothing will change.

Uber can appeal, and eventually win back its licence. It just needs to make some structural changes. All the things TFL called them out for are correctable, and should be corrected. They have behaved badly – driven from the top by a now ousted CEO.

Issues like reporting not reporting crimes would get any cab-firm banned. Uber should expect no difference. Just because you’re big, it does not give you carte blanche to behave as you like.

Uber will appeal this process for months and/or years; fixing the issues and remaining on London’s streets all the while.

Those 40,000 drivers will mostly carry on driving regardless of outcome. Lyft can fill the void if necessary – or all the local mini-cab firms that many of those drivers came from in the first place. But the structure of their work was no more secure as Uber drivers than someone on a zero hours contract working for Sports Direct.

In any case, there are other criticalities.

The number of private hire vehicles in London has skyrocketed, from 49,400 in 2009/10 to 87,400 in 2016/17. That creates congestion, and also has an impact on London’s abysmal air quality. Even a Toyota Prius burns petrol some of the time. Those volumes are unsustainable, and TFL is no doubt looking at ways to limit those numbers.

And like other groups, Uber’s long-term plan is to do away with human drivers altogether. How long it’ll be before we see self-driving cars on London’s complex street system is anyone’s guess. I’d expect it’ll be later rather than sooner given our medieval road layouts. But it’ll come, and Uber is spending big. And at that point it will revolutionise transport, and indeed, transport ownership. And jobs like driving will be gone forever.

Facebook, Amazon and the Premier League

It’s nearly time for the money-go-round… sorry, merry-go-round, that is the Premier League rights auction for seasons 2019/20-2021/22. We’ve just started the second season of the current deal where Sky and BT between them have spent £5.1bn for the current round of rights. Recall that last time around, this represented a colossal 71% increase in revenues.

That money, allied with ever-increasing overseas TV rights, fuels the UK game. But there were questions about how much further rights could increase next time around. Sky and BT represent the only “broadcasters” who are likely to bid next time around, and assuming that each is broadly happy with its lot, you wouldn’t expect rights to increase substantially.

Indeed, it seems as though the current set of rights have caused some real pain to the broadcasters. Sky has broadly speaking cut back its sports coverage, losing men’s tennis, and reducing rugby union coverage. Anecdotally, it seems that more coverage is coming from Sky’s studios rather than sending production teams to events.

One way or another, Sky has tried to avoid massive increases to consumers, although prices are going up.

So if Sky and BT are fairly maxed out, how do Premier League clubs get some big increases next time around?

Today The Guardian reports that Manchester United vice-chairman Ed Woodward says that Amazon and Facebook will get into the game.

As far as everyone is concerned, these companies bring untold wealth. They could be game-changers – pardon the pun.

Well of course Woodward would say that. And I’m sure that Amazon, Facebook, Google and Apple will run the numbers. But at over £10m a match under the current contract, they’d need a compelling case. With the possible exception of The Crown, that blows all top TV dramas out of the water in terms of costs.

A lot has been made of Amazon taking on ATP Men’s Tennis in the UK from next year. They’re paying around £10m – the same price as a single Premier League match – for a year’s worth of tennis. Sky is said to have wanted to pay less than last time around, so it was to all intents and purposes giving up on the sport. They’d already dropped their US Open coverage.

For Amazon, tennis is a bit of a trial. Perhaps it’ll get them new Prime memberships, or make current members happier. But it’s not a massive cost. It’s not a multi-billion, multi-year commitment.

That’s not to say that one of GAFA won’t buy rights, but that’s a much bigger step. And what does that really get you?

All of this is before considering whether every football-loving household in the UK has enough internet bandwidth to support a live HD (or 4K) stream.

I could be wrong. But I’m not convinced just yet.

Saturn – Farewell Cassini

Farewell Cassini. You have been wonderful!

On Friday, just ahead of Cassini finally burning up in the atmosphere of Saturn as the probe ended its 13 years orbiting the planet, its rings and its moons, the mission’s Twitter feed sent this.

And so, I did.

The picture above was taken in Zakynthos where I was on holiday. I only had my RX100 III “point and shoot” with me, which only has a 70mm zoom lens. That means that I had no chance of seeing the rings of Saturn. So instead I took a photo of the night sky, looking southwest, and relying on mobile apps to point me in the right direction to see Saturn. There was also a little light pollution from streetlights in the village I was staying in.

You can see Saturn in the lower quarter of the picture, just to the right of the Milky Way, which was nicely visible. The photo was taken in the relatively early evening after the sun had set since Saturn was only visible for a few hours before dipping below the horizon.

The picture below makes it clear exactly where in the image Saturn is.

The rings of Saturn are very viewable for the amateur. I still remember the excitement when I was younger, and my mum borrowed a large telescope from the school she taught in that was going unused. We had it at home for a few months, and seeing the rings of Saturn from my suburban back garden, with all the attendant light pollution, was just the most wonderful thing.

Sadly, I don’t have a telescope today – it’s on the wish list – and I certainly didn’t take one on holiday with me.

But looking up and seeing Saturn was a wonderful thing.

BTW NASA has published a wonderful free eBook containing many of the best images of Saturn and its moons, taken by Cassini over the years. It’s definitely worth a download! All the images within have links to the full size images from NASA’s website, so you can download them and make your own prints if you choose.

Also check out both episodes of The Sky at Night and Horizon on the Cassini mission.

Diversity in Media – Measuring Social Class

On Sunday I wrote a piece on Ofcom’s Diversity in Television report, and in particular, noted my disappointment that it didn’t measure social class.

The feedback I got can basically be summed up with the question: “Yes, but how do you measure class?”

So I thought it was worth exploring the issue a bit further.

Measuring social class isn’t easy. What you can’t do is simply ask people to mark themselves on a form. You need to collect proxy information that can provide you with some kind of methodology to measure it.

Here we come to census v survey.

A census is a record of every single employee, whereas a survey is a sample of some of the population. While ordinarily you’d want to measure the responses of all your employees, if your company is big enough then a survey may suffice. Not only that, if you know that some employees are likely to feel uncomfortable answering certain questions, then you’re likely to need to use a survey.

It’s for this reason, by the way, that surveys conducted about sensitive areas such as sex, should be treated with extreme caution, since many do not wish to answer, and indeed may be answering untruthfully.

Of course, there are rightly concerns that this is sensitive data. What right does my employer have to know about my parents’ education, or jobs? And as an employer, do I feel comfortable asking employees to collect this data?

It is sensitive information, and it needs to be collected and measured responsibly. So that probably means that it shouldn’t sit as a field in an employee’s record on an HR system, anymore than you’d record someone’s sexual orientation or religious beliefs on such a system.

Yet we also collect data on those sensitive areas. It’s usually collected in survey form, and on an anonymised basis. The collection is probably best handled by a third-party specialist research company who can assure employees that the data is not being used for anything other than measuring diversity in the workplace.

It’s important that social class data is collected as it impacts on many behaviours across societies. So while it’s hard to do it, groups like the Office of National Statistics have to collect this data, and indeed they have their own methodology for doing so. Notably, these are based around employment status (employer, self-employed or employee), organisational size and supervisory status (does a person supervise others, and in what context?).

As The Guardian reported over the weekend, the BBC has made the decision to use a staff survey which measured parents’ occupations, noting that its staff showed a higher likelihood of their parents having achieved higher managerial and professional occupations than the wider population, suggesting a class imbalance compared with the wider population.

Now it’s certainly true that an organisation the size of the BBC is able to get an external research company to measure such indicators, and provide norms to compare against. But Ofcom’s report was based on UK broadcasters who all had turnover’s of £1bn or more, so I’d argue that each of them is in a position to do a similar job.

On the other hand, a small indie isn’t in such a position, and the size of that indie might make such data relatively meaningless anyway.

Yet if the media industry is serious about diversity, then this does need measuring, and doing so on a pan-media basis with some central funding, could mean that the broader industry could be surveyed.

Mind you, as a friend of mine said to me, if you banned unpaid “internships” tomorrow, it may fix the problem quite quickly.

Diversity in UK Media – Ofcom’s Report Doesn’t Go Far Enough

Last week Ofcom published the first in what it says will be a regular series of reports into diversity and equal opportunities in television. It focuses on the biggest UK television broadcasters: BBC, Channel 4, ITV, Sky and Viacom (owner of Channel 5 amongst others).

Diversity remains a key concern in the media industry, from representation throughout media organisations, to issues surrounding pay discrimination based on sex.

But I really do have a bone to pick with this, and nearly every report on diversity in UK broadcasting. They don’t go far enough.

Sharon White, Ofcom’s CEO says in her introduction to the report: “Too many people from minority groups struggle to get into television. That creates a cultural disconnection between the people who make programmes, and the many millions who watch them.”

This is undoubtedly true, despite schemes that are set up across the industry.

The report breaks employees into the following categories:

  • Gender
  • Racial group (BAME)
  • Disability
  • Age
  • Sexual orientation
  • Religion and belief

The report dutifully compares each of the measured broadcasters against both the population at large, UK based industry, and the average amongst the peers. From this we see, for example, that Channel 4 does well amongst BAME staff, while Viacom does well with women in leadership roles.

But there’s a glaring hole in this analysis, and it’s one that pervades UK media.

Social class.

It’s just not measured. And without that we’re missing something fundamental from our broadcasters.

I’m not saying the other factors aren’t important – they are. And sometimes those other measures can be indicative of social class. But while media has a widely acknowledged considerable issue with new entrants coming into the sector, unless they’re supported by family members (bank of mum and dad), and can support themselves in London while they do unpaid “work experience”, then for all those other measures, we’re going to only get people who come from wealthier backgrounds.

Everybody knows this. It was mentioned in a good episode of The Media Show from the RTS Cambridge TV Festival this week.

So I’m not at all sure why it’s not included in Ofcom’s report. It’s critical that this is measured to truly show diversity in the media.

[UPDATE: I wrote a follow-up to this piece, detailing some ways this data could actually be collated.]

Brancaster Beach

Brancaster Beach from Adam Bowie on Vimeo.

Up early this morning to head to Brancaster beach along the North Norfolk coast and capture these images. The beach is vast as you can see and to the east of it, there’s a channel, Norton Creek, which separates the mainland from Scolt Head Island. The channel itself leads into Brancaster Staithe where many boats are moored.

The island is quite enticing to get to, but despite being just about reachable at low tide, it can be dangerous and there are plenty of stories of people being trapped or worse.

On the tip of the island is the wreck of the SS Vina, a ship that dates from 1894 and was used as target practice during the war. Today, despite efforts to salvage it, its position means that it’s hard to reach, and it’s visible at low tides.

A couple more photos over on Flickr.

Bike Cameras for my Brompton

For some time now I’ve been thinking about putting a camera or cameras on my bike for my commute. While there was no single thing that tipped me over the edge, and I’ve been lucky to only have some rare incidents with other traffic, the ease with which you can fit cameras to bikes meant that I needed to bite the bullet. On camera footage definitely helps with prosecutions of bad behaviour – especially driving.

I wanted to do it cheaply and I already owned an inexpensive GoPro Hero camera. These retailed for less than £100 or so a couple of years ago (that’s cheap for a GoPro). These models aren’t available any more, but they shoot 1080 at 25 frames a second which is fine in this instance. I know that today, there are a wide range of cheaper action-cams available online and on the high street. I suspect that some of these may supercede a three-year-old base level GoPro, but the footage is of high enough quality for my needs, and I already had the camera.

I attached it to my saddle using an adapter that fits to the rails at the back of the saddle (although see below for a better value package). This mounts the camera upside down, and as long as you make the change in the settings, it records video in the correct ratio. Mounting it under the saddle hides, to some extent, the size of the camera.

For the front camera, I chose a GoPro Hero Session which is just under £150 and is the cheaper of the two Session cameras currently available (Note that GoPro will probably update their range soon with a rumoured Hero6 being launched at the top end). There’s a Hero5 model that costs another £100 and adds things like voice control and automatic upload to the cloud. The more expensive model is 4K, whereas the model I bought maxes out at 1440p (2.7K). GoPro says that stabilisation comes with the more expensive model, but there is definitely some stabilisation in this cheaper one – at least when you record in 1080p. You can see an example of that in the video of above at around 7:30, when I go over some cobbles. You can see my bag bouncing around on the cobbles while the camera’s view is relatively stable (the bag was a bit overstuffed, but is attached firmly to the bike). The image remains stable as I believe there’s some electronic stabilisation going on – probably throwing away some of the extra pixels from the wider 1440 image.

The cheaper Session is still waterproof without a housing to 10m, and has Bluetooth and WiFi connectivity, although I tend to leave these off to maximise battery life.

Other cameras I considered were the Cycliq Fly6[v] and Fly12. These are cameras specifically designed for bikes, and are built into LED lights. While the rear Fly6[v] was reasonably priced at a little under £100, and includes a very decent looking light, I already have plenty of rear lights. I currently use the Blaze Burner which I backed via Kickstarter. The problem with the front light is that it’s over £200, and is massive. Mounting it on a Brompton would not be easy as you want something that doesn’t stick out when you fold the bike. So it was a non-starter.

Contour cameras are popular with some cyclists and include functionality like over-writing older files that you don’t want to keep. But the camera quality isn’t that great, and there don’t seem to have been any updates in a while. The GoPro Session does have some reasonable low-light imagery for rides in the evening.

To mount the Session to my bike I bought a set of adapters which was good value on Amazon. I was specifically after a minimalist mount that would let me hang the Session below my Brompton’s handlebars. This set came with two options, and I used the smaller one, meaning that the camera doesn’t get in the way when the bike is folded. The camera casing is firmly afixed to both the bars and the GoPro which means removing it all requires a hex key. However the Session itself can easily be popped out via a quick release. The mount set also included another adapter for saddle rails.

Both cameras can be set to use single-button quickstarts – indeed the Session only has one proper button, with a second tiny one set out of the way. So a single press of a button on each camera both turns them on and starts a recording.

The sample video above gives you an idea of what the cameras are capable of, although I know that I could do a bit better with the Session’s output, especially with Protune which allows a “Native” output for finer colour correction in post processing. The regular Hero has no such options with the video quality.

Overall I’m pretty satisfied with my solution. A series of beeps let me know that I’ve switched the cameras on (and off), and I’ve left the LEDs on for confirmation that all is working. The set-up is fully waterproof – the cheaper Hero doesn’t actually come out of its case – and the battery life is sufficient for my needs. I’d say that it’s roughly 2 hours for each camera. Importantly, both cameras fit onto a Brompton very comfortably, and don’t shout “camera” too much.

No sooner had I written most of this entry than I was on my daily commute and the following incident happened. It all happened slowly, and I was unlikely to get hurt as I had plenty of time to brake, but the car driver simply didn’t look to see if there were any cyclists coming as he crossed the junction where I had right of way. Note that while the rear facing camera wouldn’t seem to be much help in this instance, it does allow me to clearly read the driver’s number plate.