Google takes a step towards accessibility and personalisation

Google has announced the launch of Action Blocks, allowing users to customise commands for its personal assistant.

Based on a concept developed by one of its own software engineers, Lorenzo Caggioni, Action Blocks have initially been designed to aid users with cognitive disabilities. The feature allows users to build action commands which trigger a specific outcome. The outcome and the command can be customised to suit the individual user.

“The Action Block icon—for example, a photograph of a cab—triggers the corresponding Assistant command, like ordering a rideshare,” said Google’s Ajit Narayanan. “Action Blocks can be configured to do anything the Assistant can do, in just one tap: call a loved one, share your location, watch your favourite show, control the lights and more.”

While this announcement has been geared around accessibility, the feature could be made applicable to every Google user.

Google has often preached it capabilities to personalise the experience for each user, and while this has been successful to date, this feature could take it up a level. With Action Block, the power of personalisation is put in the hands of the user. Each user will want their device to perform in a different way, and this is one step in that direction.

Right now, the commands are triggered by an icon on the desktop, though there is no reason why this can’t be blended with the voice user interface in the future.

Securing a ride home is a good example. The command could be set at ‘get me home’ which could trigger several different actions. One might be to launch Uber and order a taxi, another could be to open-up Google Maps and the navigation features. This is only one example, but if applied correctly, there is no reason why such triggers could not be applied to almost any feature on the phone. The voice user interface is one which is gathering momentum and it opens-up a plethora of new ways users can interact with devices and the digital economy.

The Action Block feature is currently in trial phase, though this is something which we very much like the look of. Firstly, Google is increasing accessibility of its services to those who are often ignored by society, and secondly, the idea could be developed into something which is applicable to everyone. There is potential to put personalisation into the hands of the user.

Is $170 million a big enough fine to stop Google privacy violations?

Another week has passed, and we have another story focusing on privacy violations at Google. This time it has cost the search giant $170 million, but is that anywhere near enough?

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has announced yet another fine for Google, this time the YouTube video platform has been caught breaking privacy rules. An investigation found YouTube had been collecting and processing personal data of children, without seeking permission from the individuals or parents.

“YouTube touted its popularity with children to prospective corporate clients,” said FTC Chairman Joe Simons. “Yet when it came to complying with COPPA [the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act], the company refused to acknowledge that portions of its platform were clearly directed to kids. There’s no excuse for YouTube’s violations of the law.”

Once again, a prominent member of the Silicon Valley society has been caught flaunting privacy laws. The ‘act now, seek permission later’ attitude of the internet giants is on show and there doesn’t seem to be any evidence of these incredibly powerful and monstrously influential companies respecting laws or the privacy rights of users.

At some point, authorities are going to have to ask whether these companies will ever respect these rules on their own, or whether they have to be forced. If there is a carrot and stick approach, the stick has to be sharp, and we wonder whether it is anywhere near sharp enough. The question which we would like to pose here is whether $170 million is a large enough deterrent to ensure Google does something to respect the rules.

Privacy violations are nothing new when it comes to the internet. This is partly down to the fragrant attitude of those left in positions of responsibility, but also the inability for rule makers to keep pace with the eye-watering fast progress Silicon Valley is making.

In this example, rules have been introduced to hold Google accountable, however we do not believe the fine is anywhere near large enough to ensure action.

Taking 2018 revenues at Google, the $170 million fine represents 0.124% of the total revenues made across the year. Google made on average, $370 million per day, roughly $15 million per hour. It would take Google just over 11 hours and 20 minutes to pay off this fine.

Of course, what is worth taking into account is that these numbers are 12 months old. Looking at the most recent financial results, revenues increased 19% year-on-year for Q2 2019. Over the 91-day period ending June 30, Google made $38.9 billion, or $427 million a day, $17.8 million an hour. It would now take less than 10 hours to pay off the fine.

Fines are supposed to act as a deterrent, a call to action to avoid receiving another one. We question whether these numbers are relevant to Google and if the US should consider its own version of Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

This is a course which would strike fear into the hearts of Silicon Valley’s leadership, as well as pretty much every other company which has any form of digital presence. It was hard work to become GDPR compliant, though it was necessary. Those who break the rules are now potentially exposed to a fine of €20 million or 3% of annual revenue. British Airways was recently fined £183 million for GDPR violations, a figure which represented 1.5% of total revenues due to co-operation from BA during the investigation and the fact it owned-up.

More importantly, European companies are now taking privacy, security and data protection very seriously, though the persistent presence of privacy violations in the US suggests a severe overhaul of the rules and punishments are required.

Of course, Google and YouTube have reacted to the news in the way you would imagine. The team has come, cap in hand, to explain the situation.

“We will also stop serving personalized ads on this content entirely, and some features will no longer be available on this type of content, like comments and notifications,” YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki said in a statement following the fine.

“In order to identify content made for kids, creators will be required to tell us when their content falls in this category, and we’ll also use machine learning to find videos that clearly target young audiences, for example those that have an emphasis on kids characters, themes, toys, or games.”

The appropriate changes have been made to privacy policies and the way in which ads are served to children, though amazingly, the blog post does not feature the words ‘sorry’, ‘apology’, ‘wrong’ or ‘inappropriate’. There is no admission of fault, simply a statement that suggests they will be compliant with the rules.

We wonder how long it will be before Google will be caught breaking privacy rules again. Of course, Google is not alone here, if you cast the net wider to include everyone from Silicon Valley, we suspect there will be another incident, investigation or fine to report on next week.

Privacy rules are not acting as a deterrent nowadays. These companies have simply grown too large for the fines imposed by agencies to have a material impact. We suspect Google made much more than $170 million through the adverts served to children over this period. If the fine does not exceed the benefit, will the guilty party stop? Of course not, Google is designed to make money not serve the world.

Amazon wants to be more in-tune with your emotions

Amazon is reportedly working on new technology which will be able to detect users’ emotional state by analysing their vocal patterns.

According to Bloomberg, the tech giant is working in collaboration with Lab126 to create a wearable device, which would be paired with a smartphone, to perceive emotions of the user. With eyes on 2017 patent that uses vocal pattern analysis to determine someone’s emotional state, the insight could be used through various health and wellbeing products, or even in the online advertising world.

This is perhaps one of the trickiest aspects of hyper-targeted advertising or personalisation. Context is king when it comes to serving people relevant adverts or products, though this not only depends on browsing history or financial circumstance, but also the emotional state of that individual at that time.

For example, an individual might have searching for new trainers or workout gear over the last few weeks, but if they are feeling frustrated, presenting an expensive gym membership at that point is unlikely to be the most profitable exercise.

Right now, this technology is nothing more than an idea, while the reports have not been confirmed by Amazon. It might prove to be too much of a complex equation to solve, but it will certainly be of interest to the thousands of brands around the world who are constantly searching for new ways to engage consumers, forcing an extra couple of quid out of the constrained wallets.

This also might prove to be one step too far for the consumer. To get this concept off the ground, buy-in would have to gained from the mass market. Consumers are already being asked to reveal a lot of data in exchange for ‘free’ services, but emotional wellbeing might be the breaking point. This is incredibly personal information therefore the value exchange would have to be very tempting.

The concept itself sounds very futuristic, which to some is daunting. The pace which the technology world is moving forward is staggering at times, though we are not entirely convinced there would be buy-in from consumers. It sounds like an interesting idea, but it might be too much too soon.

Privacy champion Max Schrems is back with another lawsuit

The man who is largely credited with the downfall of Safe Harbour has re-emerged from the shadows to take eight of the internet giants to court over GDPR violations.

As user privacy increasingly seems to be an alien concept to Silicon Valley and the other internet players, Austrian data privacy champion Max Schrems has jumped into the limelight once again. This time he is challenged eight internet companies and their data privacy practices, suggesting they are violating Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

Through a filing with the Austrian Data Protection Authority, by Schrem’s non-profit NOYB, the complaints focus on the ‘right to access’ enshrined in Article 15 GDPR and Article 8(2) of the Chart of Fundamental Rights. Amazon, Apple, DAZN, Filmmit, Netflix, Sound Cloud, Spotify and YouTube are on the receiving end of the lawsuit, with the potential penalties ranging from €20 million through to €8 billion.

“Many services set up automated systems to respond to access requests, but they often don’t even remotely provide the data that every user has a right to,” said Schrems. “In most cases, users only got the raw data, but, for example, no information about who this data was shared with. This leads to structural violations of users’ rights, as these systems are built to withhold the relevant information.”

GDPR is supposed to hand control of personal data back to said individual. Its aim is to hold the digital society accountable to their actions and provide a certain level of justification for holding onto, and potentially monetizing, an individual’s personal information. Several clauses are also aimed at transparency to ensure the user is fully informed, or at least offering the user the opportunity to be, about how these software and services providers commercialise data.

In addition to what raw data is being stored, individuals do now also have the right to know where this data was sourced, the recipients and also the purpose. This is where a few of the complaints are focusing specifically, as this is the information which was absent from some of the responses.

If privacy is an alien concept, then transparency is a dirty, inconceivable word to the internet players. It seems former habits have been hard to shake.

NOYB Snip

As you can see from the table above, Schrems has tested out how some of the internet players have reacted to the introduction of GDPR. Progress has been made, except in the case of Sound Cloud and DAZN, but that is irrelevant. The introduction of GDPR on May 25 2018 was not the starting line to gradually move yourself through to compliance, day one was a hard introduction of the rules. There are some circumstances where companies can avoid penalties, but these are scenarios where non-compliance would be seen as out of the control of the company, or best efforts have been made.

This is where these firms might find themselves in a bit of hot water. An automated response which offers up some information but not all which is required through the new regulation should not be considered good enough. The pair ignoring the requests completely should be very worried about the repercussions. And finally, the Austrian regulator will also have to decide whether four weeks is an appropriate response time or too long. None of these firms are in a safe place right now.

Another interesting aspect will be the readability of the data. In the complaint, Schrems notes the raw data was provided in what would be considered cryptic form for the general public. Users would not be able to read the data therefore it is not being made accessible by the company. Whether this is taken as a violation of GDPR remains to be seen, though Austria could set precedent.

Many of the internet giants have resisted the calls from data privacy advocates and governments around the world, but GDPR is supposed to be a stick to keep the segment in line. These are companies which will want to avoid giving too many details away as the power and depth of the data sharing economy has the potential to spook large swathes of the general public. Too much light shed on data processing and exchanging practices would also offer more ammunition to the blood-thirsty politicians, many of whom are on a PR crusade to make heads roll.

Ultimately this will give us a good indication as to how sharp European regulators’ teeth actually are. In passing GDPR, the European Commission has offered a stick to the pro-privacy regulators, but how hard they swing it remains to be seen. The dreaded ‘up to’ phrase is present when looking at potential fines, so let’s see whether these regulations have the stones to dish out appropriate punishments.

Telcos are getting pretty good an impersonal communications

They might be slowly headed in the right direction, but telcos are still not great at relating to customers.

In the pursuit of relevance in the digital economy, personalised experiences are a hot topic, but the telcos are no-where near as good on the delivery front as the internet giants. There are of course many reasons for this, but one of the most apparent is the structure of the organization according to Intent HQ CEO Jonathan Lakin.

Here is the current state of affairs. The telcos have access to the same technology, a tsunami of information on the customer and (in theory) access to the same talent pool as the internet giants. The ingredients for success are on both the telco and OTT work surfaces, suggesting the organization itself is to blame.

The FANG companies are incredibly well-known for personalising experiences for customers. Not only does this create more opportunity to drive revenues, placing the right product in front of the right person at the right time, it creates a tie to the customer. The customer feels heard and has a stronger emotional connection to the brand, ultimately reducing churn. Both are benefits which would be of interest to telcos.

But the issue is structural. Telcos are organized in siloes, each of which is excellent at building an in-depth, narrow image of the customer. Whether it is insight on customer churn, or interaction and product history, the telco can build knowledge of the customer but without combining all of these images personalisation will never be a reality.

A good example is product offerings to customers, and a bugbear of many around the world. Whether it is offering products who have already been purchased, or even ones which might be out of the customers price range, without combining the siloes and making more use of the swathes of information available, personalised messaging will not be achievable.

The other issue for the telcos is that of priorities. Lakin pointed out that the main priority for telcos is profitability, which influences how products are developed and sold, and in turn evolving communication strategies and platforms. This not only creates a nightmare for integration in the IT department, but reinforces the siloes. The customer is sitting down the priority list, which is not going to aid the push towards personalised messaging.

Right now, the structure in not in place to create a personalised messaging culture. The ingredients are all there to create a sumptuous recipe, but the organizations are set up right.

Smart speakers starting to drive next era of digital

Years usually pass before the world realises a technology breakthrough actually happened and it catches on; the voice user interface might just have arrived at that watershed moment.

The fantastic breakthrough of touchscreen mobile phones is often attributed to Apple, though if you go back to 1992 IBM unveiled a phone called Simon which featured the first touchscreen. Apple didn’t invent the concept of touch screens, it simply innovated, making the iPhone a genuine smartphone as opposed to a PDA. This might seem like an odd introduction, but the same trend is emerging in the smart speaker world.

Amazon and Google did not invent the concept of the voice user interface, they simply used their brands to effect change and offer a product which was dutifully adopted by the masses which call themselves fans. In releasing their own smart speakers, the two internet giants did what other companies couldn’t; they normalised the voice user interface.

According to Nielsen’s MediaTech Trender survey, the smart speaker has penetrated the mass market and is normalising the concept of the smart home, as well as the idea of your voice being the control function. Across the US, 40% of homes now own at least one smart home device, with 24% owning a smart speaker, up from 22% in the previous quarter. Of those who currently own a smart home device, 65% plan to purchase more. Looking at the speakers themselves, usage is up, the average user interacts with the device for 72 minutes on the weekend and 65 minutes during the week, while 81% of users report using voice-command searches for real-time information, such as weather and traffic conditions, during a typical week. The more normal it becomes to use your voice in the home, the more acceptable it becomes elsewhere in the world.

Another interesting statistic from the report are the services synced to the speakers. Music streaming services are unsurprisingly the most popular, 53%, while the second most popular is shopping apps at 52%. With the user seemingly becoming accustomed to ordering goods through the smart speaker, there are a horde of new opportunities emerging, from grocery shopping to on-demand purchases linked to advertisements.

Finally, the most device synced to the smart speakers is the smartphone. This might seems like a very obvious statement, though only 32% of the respondents have linked their smartphone to the device. This is a small percentage of what is possible, though the potential to learn more about these individuals who have synced their devices is quite exciting. The virtual assistant is no-longer limited to the users home and can start to learn about habits in the big, wide world. This offers a much more in-depth opportunity to create valuable, personalised services.

As it stands, the smart speaker is little more than an entertainment product. 90% of users listen to music on the devices, 81% search for real-time information such as the weather, 68% listen to the news and 68% use it for alarms or timers. However, these devices are introducing new concepts and features which are gradually becoming accepted and normalised by the user. The voice user interface is an incredibly important one.

Just like the touch interface opened up new opportunities to make money, the voice interface will do the same. But this is a while down the road, mass adoption of both new devices and the normalisation of new concepts need to take place first. New ideas open the mind up to even more new ideas, including services and products, as well as blurring the lines of what would be considered intrusive or unacceptable. The smart speaker is playing a critical role here.