Sunday, January 15, 2012

Nostalgia for the good old coin-in-the-slot parking meter

Computerizing everything has appeal as a cost-saver to service providers but the report from Britain below says it has made life more difficult for us all. I agree. I used to be happy to park at a parking meter, drop a coin in the meter and be on my way. Such meters have now vanished from my environment. Instead there are computerized monsters with lots of buttons that I just don't get on with. I tried them a couple of times and failed to make them work for me. So I drove off and took my business to a supermarket that had free onsite parking. I always do that from the beginning now. No more parking meters for me!

And I too find voice-recognition software at the end of a phone line quite hopeless. I speak with a native Australian accent in Australia but I am still often not understood. So now I just say "bum" to every query and that usually gets me through to a human being a little faster


It was a freezing cold, blowy day and I had rather misjudged my outfit. My sweater was too thin and my coat not warm enough so, as I went to pay to park my car, I wanted to be as quick as possible.

It used to be simple enough. I would buy a ticket and stick it on my car windscreen; mission accomplished. Now, of course, it’s not so straightforward. Now, I have to negotiate with a computer for my ticket via my mobile phone.

First, I have to set up a credit card account but, according to the electronic apparatchik on the end of the telephone line, there’s a problem with my card. There isn’t, but it’s too late – it’s hung up on me.

I try again but press the wrong number. ‘Invalid response, please try again,’ it says. I try again. And again. Finally, I think I have beaten it, only to be told: ‘Your parking has failed.’ We have reached an impasse. The voice tells me I need assistance – even it agrees I need the help of a real person.

I am put through to a human being and my account is set up within moments and I can now finally purchase my ticket – more than 15 minutes after I first stepped out of the car.

This is just one of many services that have become mechanised in recent times. Everywhere I turn, humans are being replaced by machines. So when Channel 4’s Dispatches team asked me to help make a programme on the issue, I didn’t hesitate. What I discovered shocked me.

In truth, I found it quite sinister. Before making Richard Wilson On Hold, I had thought the amount of automation creeping into society was a bit of a worry. Now I am not just appalled at the extent of it – but at the companies that inflict it upon us.

Retailers and local authorities claim this technology is an improvement, that it provides a better service that benefits us all. But is that true? We took four automated systems – parking meters, checkouts and two different types of phonelines – and tested them to see whether they are more efficient.

I quickly discovered that cashless parking is of little benefit to me. Yet the benefits to the authorities are obvious. They don’t have to collect any money, nor do they have to count it or bank it, which saves them a fortune in administration costs.

So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that in the past five years more than 100 authorities across England – two-thirds – have adopted pay-by-phone parking. Councils in England already make nearly £1.5 billion in parking fees and fines; now they can make even more. Very often they also receive a call-handling commission from the phone service they use.

And worse, in some instances, the phone service provider receives a commission too. A percentage of the extra money the council makes is not spent on us, the taxpayer, but is passed on to the private companies which manage the parking system.

So while they make ever more money, I’m the one doing all the work, taking all the pain – and paying for the privilege.

As part of our investigation, we surveyed 2,000 people and asked them which self-service system most annoyed them. Fifty per cent said automated telephone lines were the biggest nuisance – so we set up our own call centre with nine students and five volunteers from Age UK.

One of the things I have learned is the way in which automation alienates elderly people. For a lot of them, going to the shop is the highlight of their day, but now they don’t even get to talk to the shop assistant when they’re there. They also find the increased reliance on computerised phone lines challenging. Many have problems with their hearing and for arthritis sufferers it can be difficult to keep up with all the numbers you are asked to press. Our volunteers made 400 calls over three days to eight of the country’s largest banks and utility companies. We wanted to see how long it took before each call was answered by a human voice.

In fairness, the banks performed very well. Halifax responded within 40 seconds, Barclays in 28.

The energy companies came out bottom. One volunteer had to wait nearly half an hour to speak to Southern Electric, while E.ON took 58 minutes 17 seconds to answer.

When we contacted E.ON, they said their average waiting time was 59 seconds and they provided a range of alternative helpline numbers for customers. They also said they were upgrading their entire phone network soon.

However, it’s not just the time wasted I object to – it took 14 people 27 hours and 42 minutes to make 400 calls – it’s the cost. These companies use ‘non-geographical’ numbers that may incur costs that an 0800 number would not. We estimated that the call to E.ON would have cost £4.41 on a landline, £6.96 on a mobile.

A spokesman from Which? told me: ‘The costs of calls may not be apparent to you when you pick up the phone. More and more of us are using mobile phones when we are contacting utilities, banks and so on. ‘It could be costing you 40p a minute if you are using an 0844 number. They are premium rate numbers and Which? feels strongly that they are inappropriate for customers.’

At least our volunteers got through to a human voice, albeit by an often tortuous route. The telephone system I personally find most annoying is the automated voice recognition service increasingly used by cinemas, airlines and train companies.

In the TV programme, I try to book a cinema ticket. The computer asks me which film I’d like to see.

I tell it: ‘The Adventures Of Tintin.’

‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy?’ it responds.

I repeat: ‘The Adventures Of Tintin.’

‘Johnny English Reborn?’ it asks.

I try once more: ‘The Adventures Of Tintin.’

It replies: ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin.’

‘No, we don’t,’ I say, before slamming down the phone in frustration.

Now, I know I have a Scottish accent but it is hardly broad. And I don’t think RADA would be too happy to think one of its students couldn’t make himself understood by such a thing.

I visited Martin Russell, a voice recognition expert, and he told me the system works best if it’s a voice or an accent it has heard before. He said: ‘The computer has an expectation about how every word in its vocabulary will be pronounced. It builds that expectation by listening to recordings of lots of people speaking. If all of the recordings it hears are from people in the south-east of England, then it would expect you or any other user to speak as if you came from the south-east of England.’

So now it appears that this machine might even be racist, too.

They could improve the service by increasing the database of recordings – but that would cost more and, as ever, this is all about the money.

I interviewed Rob Crutchington, sales director at Encoded, a leading provider of automated phone systems. He explained that the average salary for a phone operator is £15,000 plus a further £10,000 in recruitment and training fees. In contrast, an interactive phone service might cost £5,000 and can answer 60 to 120 calls simultaneously. The savings are substantial. Once again, the benefits for the service provider are clear, the benefits to the consumer less so.

It was a depressingly similar story when we looked at the self-service checkouts which are sprouting up in supermarkets everywhere. They were introduced in 2002 and there are now 21,000 of them. Supermarkets insist these checkouts benefit us, that they offer us a more efficient, quicker system.

We put their claims to the test, sending teams of two shoppers to four supermarkets. Each person had an identical shopping list of ten items. One went to the automated till, the other to the old-style checkout. The automated tills were slower every time, often considerably more so.

At Marks & Spencer, a self-service meltdown meant the automated checkout clocked up a time of 13 minutes – more than ten minutes longer than it took at the staffed till.Yet stores will continue to introduce more and more of them because they save money.

We spoke to a former supermarket manager from Morrisons who did not want to be named. He said that the chain had calculated it could save £5 million by introducing computerised checkouts in 120 stores. And that’s just in the first year – profits increase over time as they no longer have the cost of installing the equipment.

Automation doesn’t help us – I failed to find any benefits. If anything, it makes us miserable. Yet automated Britain will continue apace – whether we want it or not.



SOPA becoming election liability for backers

To the ranks of same-sex marriage, tax cuts and illegal immigration, add this to the list of polarizing political issues of Election 2012: the Stop Online Piracy Act.

The hot-button anti-piracy legislation that sparked a revolt online is starting to become a political liability for some of SOPA’s major backers. Fueled by Web activists and online fundraising tools, challengers are using the bill to tag its congressional supporters as backers of Big Government — and raise campaign cash while they’re at it.

Among the fattest targets: SOPA’s lead author, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas), and two of its most vocal co-sponsors, Reps. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.). House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has also felt the wrath of SOPA opponents.

Even GOP presidential contenders Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum were asked by voters recently to weigh in on the bill (neither gave definitive answers, though activists have interpreted Santorum’s response as more sympathetic to SOPA than Romney’s).

It’s a stretch to think SOPA will cost any of the longtime incumbents backing the bill their seats. The legislation would give government new powers to shutter websites that peddle counterfeit products and pirated copies of movies and music.

But there are signs the issue, long the domain of think tanks and intellectual property lawyers, could become a real factor in some races.

Prominent conservative blogger Erick Erickson, for one, has promised to make life miserable for any GOP lawmaker who gets behind the bill. His first target: Blackburn.

“I love Marsha Blackburn. She is a delightful lady and a solidly conservative member of Congress,” Erickson wrote on his widely read blog, Red State. But “I am pledging right now that I will do everything in my power to defeat her in her 2012 re-election bid.”

Erickson went on to implore the left and right to “unite and pledge to defeat in primaries every person named as a sponsor” of SOPA and suggested that both sides create a fund dedicated to supporting challengers running against SOPA supporters.

“Killing SOPA is that important,” Erickson wrote.

In Ryan’s case, critics pounced after the powerful congressman issued a vague statement that they interpreted as supportive of the bill. Using the social news site Reddit, they launched an online campaign— dubbed “Operation Pull Ryan” — to unseat him.

Ryan’s Democratic opponent, Rob Zerban, seized on the uproar. After lambasting the bill during an interview on Reddit, Zerban raked in about $15,000 in campaign donations, according to campaign manager Lisa Tanner.

The uproar wasn’t lost on Ryan. On Monday, he issued a statement opposing SOPA in no uncertain terms. While the bill “attempts to address a legitimate problem,” Ryan said, it would open the door to “undue regulation, censorship and legal abuse.”

SOPA is making waves in other House races, too.

Goodlatte’s primary challenger in Virginia’s 6th District, Karen Kwiatkowski, claimed on her website that SOPA “will dramatically increase the federal government's role in our lives.” She asked people to contribute to her campaign and “send Bob Goodlatte a message.”

Kwiatkowski, who describes herself as a “conservative constitutionalist Republican,” told POLITICO that Goodlatte’s support for the bill was “bought and paid for” by content companies that “don’t want to adapt their business models [and] don’t want to invest in protection for their material.” That includes language software company Rosetta Stone, she said, which is based in the district.

She estimated that 20 percent — or roughly $5,000 — of the donations she received in December was attributable to SOPA. Kwiatkowski has raised about $30,000 total.



Even Obama opposes SOPA

He probably sees that in a year's time there may be a Republican president who might use it against Democrats

The Obama administration said Saturday that it strongly opposed central elements of two congressional efforts to enforce copyrights on the Internet, all but killing the current versions of legislation that has divided both political parties and pitted Hollywood against Silicon Valley.

The comments by the administration's chief technology officials, posted on a White House blog Saturday, came as growing opposition to the legislation had already led sponsors of the bills to reconsider a measure that would force Internet service providers to block access to websites that offer or link to copyrighted material.

"Let us be clear," the White House statement said, "online piracy is a real problem that harms the American economy." But, it added, "We will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet."

The bills under consideration in Congress were designed to combat the theft of copyrighted materials by preventing U.S. search engines such as Google and Yahoo from directing users to sites that allow for the distribution of stolen materials. They would cut off payment processors such as PayPal that handle transactions.

The bills would also allow private citizens and companies to sue to stop what they believed to be theft of protected content. Those and other provisions set off fierce opposition among Internet companies, technology investors and free speech advocates, who said the bills would stifle online innovation, violate the First Amendment and even compromise national security by undermining the integrity of the Internet's naming system.




List of backup or "mirror" sites here or here -- for readers in China or for everyone when blogspot is "down" or failing to update. Email me here (Hotmail address). My Home Pages are here (Academic) or here (Pictorial) or here (Personal)


No comments: