Tim O’Reilly has outlined some of the world’s big problems in his talks, and urged technologists to “work on stuff that matters.” I was one of O’Reilly’s listeners at the Web 2.0 Expo in NYC (see my post here).
But, I found out at the Head Conference in London, recently, that O’Reilly is doing more than just talking about solving the world’s problems. The O’Reilly VC company is investing in technologies that tackle these big problems, for example, a very interesting startup, AMEE.
AMEE is a new company with a VERY big, world changing idea – “to create a neutral technology platform to aggregate all the energy consumption data in world ” – “to be the world’s energy meter.”
I was fortunate, when I was in London, to get an opportunity to chat with Tim O’Reilly about AMEE, Web 2.0, and the role of virtual worlds in positive global development. Also, I met the CEO of AMEE, Gavin Starks.
We are still, just, in the pre “Internet of Things” era. But, soon, as Bruce Sterling puts it, we will be able to “Google our shoes” or find out which super market shelves are out of sandwiches at any particular point in time! But for now, it can still be very hard to find a sandwich, even in central London. So, I had plenty of time to talk to Tim O’Reilly whilst searching for a hand held bite to eat.
We journeyed past several sandwichless restaurants (Tim picked up the Financial Times under his arm in the picture above in one of them), and super markets with shelves stripped bare except for some end of the day sushi (it looked scary so we passed on that).
Finally, McDonalds came through for us with the sandwich in the top left corner of the photo above. The full interview is later in this post.
First, more about AMEE.
Tim O’Reilly says he doesn’t like predicting the future. But the future comes to Tim O’Reilly in very powerful ways. And AMEE asks us to play a new proactive role in our own future. AMEE’s call to action is:
“If all the energy data in the world were accessible, what would you build?”
AMEE’s mission is to be a neutral technology platform, using open source and standards, and an architecture of participation, to address the need to standardize measurement, encourage collaborative development, and create a market place for energy data.
AMEE’s goal is to enable us to understand energy consumption from the level of the individual to the scale of whole countries.
This would address the need O’Reilly notes here his son-in-law Saul Griffith argued at Emerging Technology Conference earlier this year: “to pick a target CO2 concentration and work backwards to get to an energy policy, rather than guessing at an energy policy with fingers crossed, hoping for a climate outcome that is tolerable.” AMEE is also involved in Saul’s Wattzon initiative.
Gavin Starks, CEO, AMEE, (pictured above standing under the Head Conference banner – a recording of his talk is here), explained:
AMEE’s vision is to aggregate all the energy data on Earth. By energy I include electricity, gas and all types of fuel, water, waste, you name it: everything we do is energy consumption, which means really building towards our sustainability footprint rather than just our carbon footprint. The initial thing we’ve focused on is Carbon and CO2, because that’s the most pressing issue we have to face: but it’s quite a thin layer on top of the whole sustainability question.
AMEE is not building the front-end applications to harness this energy data. Gavin noted:
We’re aggregating all the standards. This is a massively complex area, so we’ve got a science team whose job is to harvest all the scientific research and methodologies. That’s not something developers tend to want to go anywhere near: it unpacks itself into enormous amounts of complexity very quickly (e.g. building methodologies that have 700 data points). Our Chief Scientific Officer, Dr Andrew Conway, is ex-NASA and has worked on massive scientific data analysis.
We aggregate government standards and other international standards, so that you know when you’re integrating with us, that you’re working to those standards. But much more than that we actually publish those standards on an open Wiki (the Wiki and the API actually talk to each other). As these standards emerge and evolve, we’ll be tracking them, ensuring that we are up to date, and granularity is added as needed.
We were very fortunate that one of our first clients was Defra which UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Defra is currently restructuring into DEC – the Department for Energy and Climate Change. So in the UK they’re actually fusing Energy and Climate Change into a single government department. I think this is quite remarkable: a giant step forward.
We were contracted by them because they were building a national campaign to raise the awareness of every citizen’s personal and household footprint, and they were looking for an Open Source solution – which AMEE is. Defra/DEC now use AMEE for two purposes: they make their standards available through the AMEE platform, so that everybody else can use them, and as the back-end solution to their national campaign, “Act on CO2″.
AMEE is SaaS – a web-service API – we’re not trying to compete with anyone on the front-end development and delivery. Because we aggregate two moving targets: standards and consumption, we enable those integrated with us to be current at all times.
Who Owns the Data?
But, if AMEE hopes to harness global network effects as a neutral aggregator of energy consumption data from individuals, businesses, and governments, one of the key questions that AMEE must answer (also a key question for Web 2.0 in general) is: Who owns the data? I have delved into this question before on Ugotrade. See David Levine’s conversation with Eben Moglen on privacy here.
Gavin told me that this is a question AMEE has given a lot of thought to.
How AMEE answers this question, Who owns the data?, will probably determine the success of their mission as an ethical endeavor, and their ability to scale and leverage the network effects of the internet as a platform while still allowing ” a very granular level of energy activity to be tracked.”
Gavin explained where AMEE is going re their approach to this issue. And, how this relates to AMEE’s business model – software as a service (SaaS).
We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the best way to approach this, from both a commercial perspective and an ethical perspective.
We’re in a position where we’re aggregating vast amounts of personal and business information, on an ongoing basis. If we were to integrate with your credit cards, your smart meter, your supermarket, and your vehicles: we actually know everything about your life. Aside from the Data Protection issues we felt, “How could we protect everybody around ‘excessive’ exploitation of that data and ensure the user has long-term control?”.
As the saying goes, “we don’t know what we don’t know”: when it comes to predicting what our privacy issues will be, and as the data around our physical lives becomes digitally available, we wanted to err on the side of caution. Danny O’Brien, the EFF and MySociety have certainly helped to shape our thinking in this respect.
However, this doesn’t preclude us from enabling data-portability on behalf of the user. The anonymous key is not dissimilar to an OpenID, but applied to a specific data set. We are heading towards allowing you to control your data’s portability, as an individual.
It’s a fragile space. We want to give you the opportunity to glue together your AMEE IDs with your OpenID, or whatever login you choose, so that you’re in control. We aim to enable this to be both cloud and edge-based, which while fragile, is in the interest of the user. The more value we can provide, we believe, the stronger the value of our proposition.
But, because were dealing with a range of different massive organizations … imagine credit card companies sharing data with energy companies sharing data with petrol companies, sharing data with airlines etc. That’s a massive challenge from a business and political perspective – almost impossible to navigate.
We can enable people to collaborate, by making it opt-in all the way through the chain. We don’t undermine peoples existing databases: we can actually add value to them, or we aim to add value to them. We think this has got a huge amount of potential to stimulate new business for our clients.
It’s very “web” in its execution: we are part of an ecosystem. Part of our imperative is to be commercially enabling to everybody else. If we’re not being commercially enabling to other people, we’re not going to get the kind of scale of change that we need.
This was another design feature. We felt, “how could we create something which other people could build businesses or platforms on top of”? And, how could that scale incredibly quickly? If we’d gone beyond our boundaries as an API, we would have been competing with people we want to work with.
While many services have taken similar strategic approaches, most seem to start with a form of lock-in, or evolve quickly to the point of lock-in, which satisfies a current trend in their valuations. We believe this trend will change and adapt to a more “privacy-based” intelligence, which has substantial value.
Tim O’Reilly in The Magic Circle
The motto of The Magic Circle where the Head Conference was held, “Indocilis Privata Loqui,” can be roughly translated as “not apt to disclose secrets.” One of the wonderful displays of memorabila there was Robert Houdin’s Mystery Clock (picture below). Luckily, for me, I was was treated to a full explanation of the “Mystery Clock” by another attendee during the Head Conference cocktail party.
As Tim O’Reilly pointed out, in his interview with Aral Balkan, he felt it was a privilege to be talking in this theater and center of magic. Capturing the magic, spreading the magic, and sharing the magic is at the heart of what he has spent his career doing. He explained:
I guess this is kind of a root idea for O’Reilly…… When I look back on my career….What did we really do? Find cool people who were doing cool shit. They didn’t really need any help from us. But then there were a bunch of people who were saying, “How did they do that”? Those are the people we help.
We find the people who are doing what appears to be magic. The Arthur C. Clarke kind of magic you know…. We document – we teach people how to do it.
It is such a great privilege to be here in a theater devoted to magic – The Magic Circle. This is really what we try to do. We try to capture the magic, spread the magic, share it with other people.
Tish Shute: I was interested in your comment on Chris Brogan’s blog post the other day.
Tim O’Reilly: Actually it wasn’t Chris Brogan’s post. Dennis Howlett was a guest blogger. I was reacting to him saying there is nothing new in Web 2.0. My reaction was: “Well gosh it’s very easy to make a straw man out of Web 2.0 and say, ‘What’s new?’”
Howlett was specifically reacting to the Web 2.0 start ups that are superficial and not really what the trend is all about. For me, Web 2.0 is about the internet becoming a platform. Does he think that is over?
And, it is about understanding that the rules of business change when the internet is a platform. I think a lot of people do that with Web 2.0 [make it a straw man].
They don’t like the term Web 2.0 and they attach ideas to it that reflect the most superficial elements. And then, they say these aren’t interesting. And, what he was saying was that there is a lot of superficial social media stuff – consumer apps, and what really matters is what will bring ROI to business.
I just said that he is totally missing the point because learning how to use the network as a platform matters very much to business. The same rules that apply to everyone else apply to businesses.
So, for example, I have made the point in my talk in New York, just a few months ago, that in many ways you can think of Walmart as a Web 2.0 company. They are infused with IP – they are taking the data that the users give them by buying things and making themselves a more responsive organization by using that data.
That is the heart of Web 2.0 in the enterprise. Not, do they use social media or not, or the social media buzz words.
Tish Shute: I am going to do an interview with Gavin Starks, CEO of AMEE. Could you tell me about your role in this project?
Tim O’Reilly: My role is as an investor. Our venture firm, O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures, has just finished closing on investment in AMEE. We think global warming is a really important issue to come to grips with. And, a big part of it is actually keeping track of all the carbon we’re emitting. AMEE helps with that problem.
Tish Shute: What is the potential, now we are beginning to break virtual world technologies down into basic open source building blocks, to create useful mashups with sensor technology, Web 2.0 and Virtual Worlds? Could Virtual Worlds play a key role in this work of instrumenting the world?
Tim O’Reilly: First of all, I don’t think that Virtual Worlds in the Second Life style will have this role …while I like the concept of Second Life, in that we have a Second Life in a virtual world, I am not sure that 3D avatars are [the way to go]…. at least they are certainly not my Second Life. My Second Life is in other types of media.
But, when I look at this idea of instrumenting the world, one of the things that is very, very clear is that we are turning all the millions of consumer cameras into sensors.
For example, Microsoft’s Photosynth demonstrates how these consumer sensors can be used to build 3D models. We are starting to build a 3D representation of the real world, not a separate virtual world. And, we are all going to be part of that world. So I think that the real Second Life will be ………..well I think the first layer is going to be….to get the 3D models of the world as it is, and then we will have doorways into additional rooms and additional spaces.
That’s when its going to take off because people are going to get used to it through navigating the real physical world with maps – with 3D imagery of buildings and spaces.
And, another piece of this… I talked recently with Carl Bass, CEO of Autodesk……and he was talking about how much even the Autodesk workflow is shifting to scanning things first.
He was describing how they have built this new demo center in an old building. The first thing they did was photographs and measure it exactly. Then they go and make stuff that fits in the exact space.
Also, he was talking about how in his own hobbyist work, he found this shark’s jaw and he loved the curve of it. So he scanned it and made it into the arms of a chair.
Tish Shute: I think the two important pieces that might come out of virtual worlds technology are the real time interactions where people can view the same application or context as and when you do, and the rapid prototyping.
Tim O’Reilly: Yes rapid prototyping, no question. But, as I said, the idea of moving an avatar around isn’t very compelling to be quite honest.
Tish Shute: But the web doesn’t do real time interaction very well does it?
Tim O’Reilly: Well Twitter is doing a pretty good job!
Tish Shute: Yes I love Twitter. But, in terms of if you want to get a 10,000 foot view and gather around and interact with data with other people…..what about that?
Tim O’Reilly: Well that’s true. I am using that example of the Squeak based virtual world that Fidelity is using. And, that is exactly what they are using it for – business interaction.
Tish Shute: What about the role Virtual Worlds might play, for example, in instrumenting the world through facilities management?
Tim O’Reilly: Yes, SAP did a very interesting project on property management – and that is interesting.
Tish Shute: Yes, on my way back to New York City tomorrow, I am going to stop off in Zurich and visit Oliver Goh who worked with Denis Browne, SAP, on that project. In fact you showed a picture of Oliver’s Goh’s avatar demoing the virtual counterpart to his instrumented Playmobile house in Second Life in your post, “SAP as a Web 2.0 Company?” (see the picture below).
Tim O’Reilly: I make no attempt at predicting the future. So you could well be right that Virtual Worlds will be a very powerful tool. But, I think with the pace that other technologies are progressing, we will get there with photorealism and video, etc. I think the fundamental problem in most virtual world stuff is the idea of the avatar.
Tish Shute: Why do you say that?
Tim O’Reilly: Well just imagine if when interacting with people in the real world you had to look at yourself interacting with someone else. First person point of view is our fundamental experience. And, you are being forced to see yourself in the third person.
Tish Shute: I have always been more interested in avataring the world than in my avatar identity.
Tim O’Reilly: There is something very interesting in having an avatar that you don’t ever see.
[At this point there were less than ten minutes before Tim's interview for the Head Conference, so it was time to concentrate on eating!]
Virtual Worlds: Where Web Meets World
As Ian Hughes, IBM, notes in a recent post on Eightbar:
The last few days have seen a plethora of virtual world pitches, reports, articles and blog posts around certain types of virtual world platform. The first was over at @monkchips a.k.a James Governor analyst blog around a visit to Microsoft to see about the ESP platform. This appears to be a high fidelity simulation platform and toolkit. The second was widely reported. But Wagner’s New World Notes is the one most of the metarati will have read on the matter. This centres around some statments by Craig Mundie that avatar based interaction was of limited interest and really it was photosynth that was the way forward, modelling the real world from photos…….
I agree with Ian when he says:
the interesting thing here is that all the discussion is not about why would anyone want a virtual world, but instead what sort is best.
Tim O’Reilly was not questioning, in my view, that we are moving towards new understandings of virtual spaces or virtual worlds but whether avatar based virtual worlds will be the most useful model.
I began my questions to Tim O’Reilly by bringing up his comment on Dennis Howlett’s post not only because he succinctly states there what is really important about Web 2.0, i.e., “internet as platform, and the rise of applications that harness network effects to get better the more people use them.”
But also, this comment caught my attention because Tim used virtual worlds as one of the examples of the value of Web 2.0 to enterprise. He wrote:
Guess what : they [SAP] understand that harnessing users is good for their business. At O’Reilly, our InPractice division is working with them to actually turn their documentation into an open source, crowdsourced project. They are doing fascinating experiments at SAP Labs with how to integrate virtual worlds into property management. They have built a great internal social network for employees that has already affected their HR practices.
This prototype is also very on trend with one of the big ideas we have about where Web 2.0 is going, towards Web 2.0 applications that are fed directly by sensors, so that “participation” no longer just means typing on a keyboard, but the accidental information we create “merely in living as and where we live.”
I have been blogging Oliver’s work prototyping various use cases for virtual worlds in facilities management and energy optimization, e.g., virtual operations centers, in Second Life and OpenSim, since its inception (see here and here).
Now, Oliver has developed a complete solution for sustainabililty in the real estate industry that optimizes energy consumption through the entire life cycle of properties - see here for more.
Also, look out for some interesting intersections between AMEE’s mission – ” to create the world’s energy meter,” and Oliver’s mission to “optimize the world’s energy usage” in the future!
I visited Oliver in Zurich on my way back to NYC from the Head Conference. In the picture below, Oliver is standing by the Playmobile house that is RL counterpart to the virtual control center house pictured above!
The ability of virtual worlds to play a role in solving the world’s pressing problems is, in my view, linked both to their ability to fully integrate in Web 2.0 and “real” world data.
I have been blogging a lot on these issues! Rob Smart, IBM, (see my recent interviews with Rob here and here – “Web 2.0 to OpenSim Made Easy”) has been doing some very interesting work recently integrating JSON support to OpenSim. This is one of the recent important steps forward in virtual world to real world communication. See this cool video, “OpenSim Meets MQTT jedi mind numbers.”
The powerful value add that virtual worlds, even in a basic form, have shown in the realm of social media that “the people with you can view the changing states of that application or context as and when you do” can also play an important role in the front end applications for projects like AMEE and Oliver’s work.
This is not to discount the role of social media virtual worlds in the participatory work of instrumenting our planet. There is already a nice integration of AMEE with Second Life. See Jim Purbrick’s Carbon Goggle’s for Second Life here.
But, if virtual world technology is going be part of the evolving power of the internet to help us solve the big problems facing humanity, there must be an evolving vision for virtual worlds and their relationship with the “real” world.
Most likely, many of the dichotomies, e.g., the notion of avatar based or non avatar based, or simulation versus augmentation, and mirror worlds versus virtual worlds, will increasingly dissolve as all these aspects of virtual reality are woven together into the fabric of everday computing to form new digital/physical realities. And, while I’m not trying to predict the future, perhaps, this will happen sooner than we think!