Sunday, January 24, 2010

Who knows more about me - Tesco or Google?

I like to think of myself as relatively savvy about how data about me is captured and stored. I know that by having (and using) a Tesco Clubcard I am offering up a veritable smorgasbord of valuable data about myself; not only where I live and what I like to eat and drink, but also what newspaper I read and - were I to take Tesco up on their full range of services - what clothes I wear, what car I drive (and when and where I fill it with petrol), what books I read, what DVDs and games I rent, what medication I take, my mobile phone and home broadband usage and even my bank balance and insurance provision. To what extent Tesco (or rather dunnhumby) joins the dots on all of this data is unknown although it's status as poster boy for successful CRM suggests, er, quite a lot.

Google is another company I'm aware knows a fair bit about me, although it wasn't until the launch of Google Dashboard last November, that I realised quite how much. Sure, there's my web search history (although that's possible to pause), but there's also my email, this blog (published using Blogger), my website stats, my online documents, my YouTube viewing, my RSS feed subscriptions, my checkout purchase history and - since I started trying out Google latitude - my location. Sounds a little scary when you put it like that, no?

The quality, convenience and competitive pricing (in Google's case, mostly free) of the products and services offered by both brands is what's keeping them dominant in their expanding (and no doubt soon to be overlapping) sectors. To what extent consumers will start factoring the volume, usage and transparency of personal data collected by these and other companies and how that will weigh against factors such as cost and convenience remains to be seen.

Of course, Tesco and Google aren't the only pretenders to the personal data throne. Through a combination of launches and acquisitions, Yahoo! now has access to my photos, email, bookmarks, conference schedule and - most potently - my social graph. The injection of users' social graph into the data mix is particularly valuable and Facebook is right at the sharp end of the personal data issues this entails, exacerbated by the rapid uptake of Facebook Connect, which is making its walled garden increasingly permeable.

Google Dashboard is a welcome baby-step in providing greater access to and - crucially - control over the personal data Google holds. It will be interesting to see whether Tesco starts moving more in this direction, whether by choice or legislation (clicking 'My Account' on the Tesco Clubcard site today returned the following message: "Sorry but an unexpected error has occured. We are currently trying to resolve the issue. Please try again.")

(Aside: Interesting to note that Tesco has dropped out of this 'Most highly-regarded business brands' ranking - although clearly the opinions of a selection of prominent UK leaders are likely to be very different to regular consumers).

Sunday, January 17, 2010

My Top 20 Films of 2009

Belatedly following on from my rather meagre list of top albums, below is my slightly more meaty run down of the twenty best (imho) movies released at the UK box office last year. Not a vintage year for cinema but still a few diamonds in the rough.

Films which I haven't got round to seeing yet which I suspect would have featured in the list if I had: The White Ribbon, An Education, The Class, The Wrestler, In The Loop.

Slumdog Millionaire
(dir. Danny Boyle & Loveleen Tandan)
Wholly deserving of the plaudits heaped upon it, Slumdog is beautiful scripted, shot, acted and scored.
2The Hurt Locker
(dir. Kathryn Bigelow)
Don't be put off by the opaque title (army slang for 'place of pain') or the subject matter (bomb disposal in Iraq), this will quite simply blow you away.
Fish Tank
(dir. Andrea Arnold)
Not the bleak kitchen-sink drama the synopsis suggests, but a powerful and strangely uplifting tale of working class Britain.
(dir. Jean-Fran├žois Richet)
A gritty two-part French crime biopic which makes a mockery of most British and American attempts at the genre.
(dir. Gus Van Sant)
A compelling true story and a barnstorming performance from Sean Penn.
6Anvil: The Story of Anvil
(dir. Sacha Gervasi)
Proving that parody is no longer necessary when it comes to the world of heavy metal.
7A Serious Man
(dir. Ethan & Joel Cohen)
A seriously well made film with strong performances from a relatively unknown cast and gorgeous cinematography from Roger Deakins.
8Let The Right One In
(dir. Tomas Alfredson)
You don't have to like vampires or subtitles - this is a powerful human drama, not the Swedish Twilight.
(dir. Steven Soderbergh)
Steven Soderbergh and Benicio Del Toro deliver a worthy companion to The Motorcycle Diaries in the pantheon of Che portrayals.

(dir. Larry Charles)
Yes, it's unnecessarily polemical, but Bill Maher's sideways look at contemporary religion is as enjoyable as it is alarming.
(dir. Ron Howard)
Transcends the limitation of playing out known events with captivating central performances from Michael Sheen and Frank Langella.
12The September Issue
(dir. R.J. Cutler)
If documentary subjects could win Oscars, you'd have to hand one to Vogue's editor-in-chief. A real Wintour-de-force (sorry!)
(dir. Duncan Jones)
A hugely disquieting watch with shades of Kubrick and a bravura performance from Sam Rockwell.
35 Shots of Rum
(dir. Claire Denis)
Slow moving and slight, this intimate French drama won't be to everyone's taste but remains a masterclass in the artistry of film-making.
(dir. James Cameron)
Not what you'd call a nuanced plot, but as a piece of pure spectacle James Cameron's magnum opus delivers in spades (or should that be shades...?)
16The Hangover
(dir. Todd Phillips)
Not quite note-perfect (can people please stop employing Mike Tyson?) but still the best Hollywood comedy of the year.
17Vicky Christina Barcelona
(dir. Woody Allen)
Allen's most watchable film in years with engaging performances from Penelope Cruz, Scarlett Johansson and Javier Bardem.
18The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
(dir. David Fincher)
An overlong but deeply affecting study of love and mortality. I challenge you not to shed a tear.
19Inglourious Basterds
(dir. Quentin Tarantino)
Whilst overindulgent in places (e.g. machine gunning Hitler in the face), Tarantino's intuitive feel for making watchable cinema wins out.
20Synecdoche, New York
(dir. Charlie Kaufman)
Bold, ambitious and - for much of the running time - downright incoherent, this is a must watch for any would-be (or has-been) film student.

Related posts:
Best Films of 2008
My Top 25 Films of 2007
My Top 30 Films of 2006
My Top 25 Films of 2005
My Top 20 Films of 2004

Friday, January 08, 2010

Geo social mobile apps (Foursquare & Gowalla)

Until not so long ago the only things I 'checked into' on a regular basis were airports and hotels. That's started to change recently with my discovery of location-aware mobile social apps Foursquare and Gowalla which enable me to 'check in' to locations pin-pointed by my phone's GPS, share that location with my friends and earn points/rewards along the way.

It's not a new idea (Dodgeball was experimenting in this area way back in 2000, albeit using SMS) but it's an idea which seems to have suddenly come of age, thanks primarily to advances in the smartphone market, with GPS now coming as standard on most handsets and mobile apps enabling interaction with web services without the need to open a browser.

The other magic ingredient in this new breed of mobile social app is the leveraging of game mechanics to incentivise uses to keep using the app and checking in to new locations. Foursquare awards you points for every check-in (which are then stacked up against your friends' totals on a leaderboard), badges based on the patterns of your check-ins and mayorship for a location's most frequent visitor (with real-life freebies at some venues). Gowalla uses stamps in a virtual passport as its central conceit, with pins instead of badges and items which you can virtually geocache.

Aside from the pursuit of kudos, both apps not only let you know when your mates check-in somewhere (which really comes to life on the iPhone now apps can use push notifications) but also function as a handy guide of neat stuff to do nearby. Whilst this triple-whammy of functionality makes the apps hard to describe in a nutshell (Foursquare describes itself as "50% friend-finder, 30% social cityguide, 20% nightlife game"), it potentially gives them the edge over apps which tick only one or two of those boxes (e.g. Google Latitude, Brightkite, Dopplr).

One of the biggest challenges for apps like this is coverage; most of the negative comments about Foursquare in the app store are about the limited number of cities it covers (currently Bristol, Brighton, Edinburgh, London, Manchester in the UK), although the ability to check in anywhere is apparently on the way (functionality already provided by Gowalla).

In terms of which app currently has the edge, Gowalla probably squeaks it thanks to its gorgeous UI and iconography although it's a close call and it's unlikely to remain a two-horse race for long as other developers wake up to the potential size of the prize in this area.