Archive for December, 2007
Sunday Business Post – Agenda Magazine – Dec 16 2007
Read the story on the SBP website by clicking here.
As concerns mount about how many products are made, Dermot Corrigan sources the best fairtraded gifts.
In the words of one famous Christmas lover, the festive season is a time for giving, a time for getting, a time for forgiving and a time for forgetting.
But many typical Christmas presents, from mobile phones to dolls, to designer clothing, come wrapped in a variety of ethical issues that impact negatively on the lives of many less fortunate people around the world. Ethically-sourced and fairly-traded goods can save Christmas and assuage some lingering guilt, allowing giver and receiver to tuck into their turkey and sprouts, knowing that they have done some good this Christmas.
A goat might seem like a particularly cruel practical joke Christmas present, but if you buy the goat from Oxfam’s ‘‘unwrapped’’ Christmas gift catalogue the animal will be a useful gift for a family in the developing world.
Peter Anderson, head of fundraising for Oxfam Ireland, has recently seen first-hand the positive results of the different ‘‘unwrapped’’ gifts.
‘‘The people of northern Uganda have suffered 20 years of civil war. Everybody we met wanted to get back to their small farm and earn their own living,” Anderson says. ‘‘We can replace lost livestock and provide seeds and tools to replant fields. We saw people who received the vegetable garden gift last year and they are now harvesting. It was fantastic to see the impact.”
Less wacky ideas for gifts in the Oxfam Unwrapped campaign include micro-credit loans, cooking stoves, condoms, bicycles, clean drinking water, schoolbooks and musical instruments for children.
‘In the communities, there is a child-to-child project,” says Anderson.
‘‘Young children use music, drama and dance to teach other children about good hygiene and sanitation.”
It is not only the children in the developing world who benefit from an ‘‘unwrapped’’ gift. ‘‘I have given some unwrapped presents to my nephews and nieces along with something else,” Anderson says. ‘‘It raises their awareness of the disparity between the first world and the developing world.”
Goats are €38 each from www.oxfamirelandunwrapped.com.
Organic goods at Ecoshop
Ecoshop is a fairly traded and organic goods retailer located near the Glen of the Downs site at Kilmacanogue, Co Wicklow. It sells a range of eco-friendly and fairly traded cleaning, beauty, baby, clothing and gardening products as well as organic, fine and local foods.
Ecoshop owner Jane Hall says ethically sound products are typically of higher quality than those from mass-producing competitors.
‘‘Our products are made carefully, and the materials and design are far better,” she says. ‘‘The old image of the hairshirt is totally contrary to what we have.”
Hall says Leela-branded wooden toys, such as Bibbo (€19.95), were popular Christmas gift ideas this year. ‘‘Leela toys for younger children are made by a women’s cooperative in India. They are made from sustainable rubber wood and covered in a natural resin, so children can chew them without any harmful effects.”
Other gift ideas include soft toys, alphabet blocks, puzzles, recycled playpens and musical instruments. All of them meet EU and US toy safety standards.
Hall knows wooden toys may not fit all of Santa’s gift requirements this Christmas, so the Ecoshop also stocks a cutting-edge media player.
The wind-up Baylis Eco Media Player has a 2GB memory capable of holding over 500 songs to listen to on the move, and a 1.8-inch colour LCD screen to view photos and films. It also works as a torch, phone charger, voice recorder and FM radio. Designed by legendary British inventor Trevor Baylis, it costs €249.
Irish consumers can now buy fairtrade pretty much anything, from coffee in the local store to designer fashions online. People Tree is a fairtrade organisation based in Britain and Japan. It deals with ethically-sound suppliers around the world and offers a range of stylish clothing and jewellery.
‘‘We work with around 70 groups in 18 different countries in the developing world, using fashion as a tool for development,” says company founder Safia Minney.
‘‘Wherever possible, we use labour-intensive, hand-production, for example, hand-weaving, hand-embroidery and hand-knitting. These methods are more environmentally friendly than conventional ones, and also allow us to create more employment.”
Minney says that People Tree’s range of stripey knit accessories (£14 or €19) are popular gifts this Christmas. They are made at the Kumbeshwar Technical School (KTS) in Kathmandu, Nepal, by members of the discriminated against Pode caste.
‘‘KTS provides education, vocational training, and then paid employment to these most underprivileged of people. People use the money they earn to educate their children at the KTS primary school, which is something that they could never have dreamed of previously.”
Minney also recommends a 100 per cent organic cotton poplin tunic, (£48 €66), which is made by Assisi Garments in India. Assisi is run by Franciscan nuns and provides employment for deaf, mute and poor women considered unfit for marriage by their families.
‘‘Assisi provides a haven for these women to live in, and a safe and supportive working environment,” she says. ‘‘They are paid a fair wage and a lump sum after five years of employment to start a home.”
As well as clothing, People Tree offers a range of jewellery, including the Bronze inlay necklace (£18, €25) from the Tara project in Delhi.
‘‘There is a dark side to the jewellery industry,” says Minney.
‘‘The cheap, spangled jewellery that is all over the high street is often made by children forced to work 12-hour days, working, eating and sleeping in the same cramped, poorly-lit and ill-ventilated workshop, because it’s cheaper and children’s small hands are more suited to creating intricate jewellery.”
Visit www.peopletree.co.uk or call 0044-845-4504595.
Sunday Business Post – Motoring Supplement – Dec 9 2007
A quick internet check on a used car revealing how it has been treated by previous owners may make you think twice, writes Dermot Corrigan
An estimated one in three second-hand cars offered for sale in Ireland has a past that should make consumers think twice about buying. To learn more about the history of a used car before the sale is completed, consumers can now utilise a number of websites that offer a wide range of information on the vehicle.
These websites include motorcheck.ie, cartell.ie and carsireland.ie, which all charge consumers for reports on the history of a used car, as well as carhistorycheck.ie, which is an industry service run for the Society of the Irish Motor Industry (Simi).
Problems uncovered by these services include outstanding finance on a car, incorrect mileage and the car having been previously stolen, used as a taxi or leased. Other important factors that are commonly uncovered include incorrect NCT information, the vehicle having been involved in an accident, numerous past owners, replacement engine or other important parts, service history, or the car having been imported from Britain or further afield.
Alan Nolan, Simi’s deputy chief executive, said the organisation introduced its car history check service, which provides motor dealers with a Car History Check certificate, to allow its members to provide a better service to the public.
“We believe it is vital for dealers to be able to check on the integrity of vehicle information supplied so that they can reassure the future buyer that they have undertaken all required checks and can verify the vehicle’s history,” said Nolan. “A car history check is designed to allow dealers to confirm a cars history so they can pass this information on to the next owner as a reassurance.”
Nolan said incorrect mileage, due to the illegal practice of ‘clocking’, or altering the mileage shown on a car’s odometer, was an increasingly prevalent problem in Ireland.
“There has been a noticeable increase in the incidence of clocked cars appearing for trade-in at garages,” he said. “Irish people place a huge value on low mileage, often with little confirmation that the low mileage is accurate. A three-year-old car with 15,000 miles on the clock will be more sought after and will achieve a higher price of as much as €2,500 than one with 40,000 miles.”
Mick Dillon, director of carsireland.ie, said outstanding finance on used cars was a major problem in Ireland.
“One in every three cars we see would have a finance contract on it still,” said Dillon. “If you purchase a car with finance on it, you will not be able to secure title on it, as the bank effectively still own the car, so you could get into quite a mess as a result.”
Dillon said the carsireland.ie history check often turned up fake national car test (NCT) certificates.
“Fraudulent NCT certificates are becoming more and more common,” he said. “People are trying to move cars along that have recently failed their NCT test.”
“Most people would prefer not to buy a car that has been used as a taxi, or has been leased,” added Dillon. “Obviously if a car has numerous owners, that is never a good thing either. Engine replacement is also never a good sign.”
Other less common problems, which can be highlighted by a history check, include the car having been cloned, written-off or scrapped, the colour being changed or a contradiction between the recorded and actual chassis and engine number.
Dillon said it was not only potential purchasers who used car history check services.
“We often find people who have already purchased a car and have noticed things going wrong over a few months,” he said. “They would then come to us to check the car and at that time find out there is something in the car’s history that tells them why this is happening.”
All the businesses carrying out car history checks find information from a wide variety of sources, including the Irish Credit Bureau, the Vehicle Registry Office and the National Vehicle and Driver File. All this information is in the public domain, but it can be very time consuming for individuals to track it down.
Each of the services also source information from Britain on the history of cars that have been imported into Ireland.
The history check services tend not to be the primary business of the organisations providing them. Carsireland.ie is also a car sales web portal where garages and individuals can offer their used cars for sale. Motorcheck is provided by Benchmark Fleet Services who are a fleet provider and also offer consultancy and vehicle related services to Irish businesses, as well as operating asset financing, fuel-related and a business trip recording IT system. Cartell.ie’s core business is providing car history checks.
The different car history-check businesses all provide a slightly different range of products, with a corresponding range of prices. A basic history check costs from approximately €25 to €40.
Nolan said garages paid the cost of the SIMI’s check.
“There is no charge to the consumer as it is part of the professional and ethical dealer’s reassurance to the consumer,” he said.
Dillon advised consumers to get a third-party opinion on a used car before making a purchase.
“The Simi service could not really be regarded as independent, as they look after their own members,” he said.
The Simi’s car history check service is provided in association with global information services company Experian.
“Experian, who are world leaders in this field, develop and operate the system, they provide and support the software for the checks, retain the records and ensure the integrity of the system,” said Nolan.
Nolan said motorists and dealers should work together to keep detailed service histories of all cars, which does not always happen at present.
“Simi strongly believes that we should place a much higher value on a well kept vehicle service history which will not only confirm that the recorded mileage is accurate but will confirm that the car has been well looked after,” he said.
Carsireland.ie also offer an inspection service to consumers, which they can use prior to deciding to buy.
“Inspections cost €99 and take about an hour in total,” said Dillon. ”We look at engine, gearbox, suspensions, undercarriage and exhaust systems, as well as the general condition of the car.”
Sellers are generally happy to allow the car to be looked at, according to Dillon.
“The seller brings in the car,” he said. “We do the inspection and afterwards we phone up the potential buyer and advise them on the condition of the car and give them a heads of up of what might happen three or six months down the road. They would often proceed with the buy, but can use the information to negotiate with the seller on the price. We ask what the price is and might say that seems reasonable, but we do not value cars or get involved in negotiation directly. The customer gets a report in the mail a couple of days later.”
The AA’s technical department also provides a comprehensive vehicle inspection service, which is commonly used by garages and can also be used by consumers. It costs from €225.
Sunday Business Post – Computers in Business magazine – Dec 2 2007
The latest storage products excel in keeping the data much closer to the end user, writes Dermot Corrigan.
Most large organisations now generate staggering amounts of data. This includes reams and reams of externally facing information on customers, suppliers and partners, as well as masses and masses of internally-facing information on products, processes and people.
This information has to be stored in a usable form so it can be exploited to grow the business, keep track of products or meet regulatory requirements.
This means that databases are continuing to grow in size at a phenomenal rate, according to Bill O’Brien, platform strategy manager with Microsoft Ireland.
“If you think back two years ago a one terabyte database was considered enormous, but now in the UK they would have four or five databases bigger than 16 terabytes and Ireland would have lots of organisations with greater than one terabyte databases,” he said.
One terabyte (TB) contains 1,000,000,000,000 bytes, which is a lot of zeroes and a lot of information. O’Brien said large organisations were using advances in digital storage technology to electronically store information that would previously have been kept in different formats such as images, sound and video.
“Enterprises are creating and storing much more digital information than they did in the past,” said O’Brien. “They used to just store text and numbers, the traditional stuff such as customer information, transactions et cetera, but they are now digitising pictures, invoices, sound, geo-spatial map information. There is a huge amount of additional material being stored and database technology has had to deal with this.”
Christian Blumhoff, NetWeaver business consultant with SAP, said many legacy database systems stored information too far away from the end user, so that it is not available quickly enough to use effectively.
“Over the last two years the database has become a bit of a bottleneck, in that it does not fulfil the requirements of a modern enterprise,” said Blumhoff. “It does not react fast enough to aggregative requests for information.”
Blumhoff said the latest storage products keep the data much closer to the end user, where it can be quickly accessed on demand to support business processes.
“A modern organisation wants to retain its information in a memory state that it can get at very quickly,” he said. “If you look at knowledge management, document imaging, enterprise search, all of these business process critical toolsets are not operating at a database level, although they might store data there for persistence sake. All the realtime processing and execution is actually done in memory.”
O’Brien said the latest database products included business intelligence tools that provide information directly to different people within the organisation, enabling them to do their jobs better and smarter.
“It is about working smarter with the data that you have,” he said.
“At executive level there are dashboards, a single place where executives can view a number of different metrics from a number of different sources. There is drilling into the data beneath that, maybe to highlight an area of the business that is not performing, perhaps sales in a particular region. A few years ago that would have meant asking your finance department to go and do some research. Now managers expect to be able to instantly drill down into the data and analyse it live themselves.”
O’Brien said reports were provided in the way that best al lows decision makers to act cleverly and quickly.
“That is not necessarily just screens with numbers, it can be visualisation in meaningful ways as well,” said O’Brien. “It can be simple things like traffic lights with green, amber and red to show the state of the business at any time, and whether objectives are being met.”
It is all well and good having lots of data stored, and being able to get quick access to it, but businesses must also ensure the information they are keeping is correct, according to Alys Woodward, business intelligence and analytics program manager, with global technology research firm IDC.
“Data quality can be a massive problem for organisations,” said Woodward.
“It is also one of those problems people do not know they have until they have investigated it. We say to people that if you do not know you have a data quality problem, then you do have.”
Woodward said organisations should look carefully at the information they have stored to determine its data quality.
“You start off with an investigation process and there are a number of tools that can help you do that,” she said. “They actually go into a database and tell you what tables you have, what values you have in the tables, and how those tables match together.”
Organisations from different sectors will have different data quality priorities, according to Woodward.
“Then you would look at which parts of your data are the highest priority for you to fix, maybe making sure your customer data, names and addresses, is correct if you are a marketing company. Or if you are a manufacturing company you may decide that sorting your product information out is more important,” she said.
“You would also set levels of data quality that are acceptable, as getting 100 per cent data quality is much more difficult than getting 97 per cent.”
Woodward said once organisations have cleaned up their data, they could then put in place mechanisms to ensure a high level of data quality going forward.
“For example if you have cal l centre operators inputting data about customers, you might put rules in place to make sure they do things correctly,” she said.
“Or if you have a lot of web forms where customers are filling in their own information, you cannot necessarily trust them to spell everything correctly. The classic example is you do not just ask the customer for their post code and type it in, you have address-matching capability in there, so you make sure the post code is valid for the road.”
Ian Devine, director of data services and business intelligence solutions with IBM, said that as databases get bigger and bigger, organisations were looking for efficient storage technologies, to keep their costs manageable.
“Storage is growing and growing, it is an increasing component of operational managers’ budgets and they are expecting us to provide a far lower cost of ownership,” he said.
Devine said compression is important if you want to efficiently store your data.
“We compress data to table level,” he said. “So you create a data dictionary which provides you with the compression. We are seeing compression ratios of better than 70 per cent for regular applications, whether transactional or warehouse. That provides a real saving for people whose storage is growing 10 or 20 per cent per annum.”
Human management costs can also add to the cost of storing huge amounts of information, according to Devine.
“We have put a lot of effort into autonomics, where you are able to run databases with little or no intervention from the main cost of running things, which is humans,” he said.
One way to keep database costs low is to choose an open-source solution, which can be downloaded free of charge.
“Open source is generally slimmer and does not have the richness of what the big guys do,” said Woodward. “But it still meets quite a lot of people’s needs. If you are just looking at storing data and doing some queries then the open source vendors might be perfectly good.
“The big guys say they are very simple and can not do this or that, but the end users may have very simple requirements.”
MySQL is probably the best-known open source database, and now has 11 million installations globally, according to Joe Morrissey, managing director for Britain and Ireland of MySQL AB.
“At MySQL we keep it simple,” he said. “We have a 15-minute rule – you should be able to download and install it in that time. Reliability and ease of use are priorities for our software.”
Morrissey said open source database products were often used in different ways than traditional enterprise databases. For example internet and telecommunications companies formed a large chunk of its customers.
“Google does not use any traditional enterprise databases for its adwords business,” he said.
“Also we are increasingly the choice for software companies that wish to embed a database and provide a batteries included solution for their customers.”
Morrissey said open source databases al lowed organisations to store data that it would have been too expensive to retain in the past.
“80 per cent of the world’s data is not in a database and it should be,” said Morrissey. “It has been either too costly or too complex to store all data in a database. Our mission is to make databases available and affordable to all.”
Increasing regulatory requirements mean many organisations have a legal obligation to keep accurate records. Devine said the latest database products can help companies do this.
“Being an American company we are painfully aware of things like Sarbanes Oxley and Basel and how important regulation is,” he said. “All the regulatory stuff is worked into the product.”
The ability to access information from the database at all times is also a priority for many organisations.
“Databases now run on phones, PDAs and embedded devices,” said O’Brien. “They are not just things that are running in the server room.”
Many enterprise level organisations now leave parts of the database open so that partners, such as customer, suppliers or consultants, can have access to the information they need to best interact with the business.
“The whole idea of self-service processes, enterprise services, web services and application services that are opened up to self-service style processes are critical,” said Blumhoff.
Privacy is also a big concern for organisations that have stored sensitive data.
“A lot of people want to encrypt their information, and they do not want that to have any impact on their applications,” said O’Brien.
“They want the database to go off and do that itself.” O’Brien said one way for the larger database vendors to add innovation to their products was to buy up smaller players who introduce interesting tools or services into the market.
“There are a lot of acquisitions in this space,” he said. “Microsoft purchased Proclarity, Oracle purchased Hyperion and Siebel and SAP purchased Business Objects. They are all business intelligence providers at one level or another. We can all compete about the merits of our database technology, but the coming battleground is around how people access and use that data.”
Devine said IBM was also active in acquiring new ideas to improve its database products.
“We are always looking at companies that can accelerate our time to market,” he said. “If we think there is something there that can fill a gap or solve that problem for us then we do that.”
Many large organisations develop their storage systems to best suit their individual requirements, according to Blumhoff.
“Most applications will have an extended database space, where people can add custom code,” he said.
“So most databases will look significantly different from one organisation to another.”
O’Brien said, however, the core database product remained as standard, with modifications varying from organisation to organisation in how they best implemented the solution.
“They typically buy the product as it is and all of the features are in there,” he said. “People do not really customise the core capability, most of the work with data is in what information people get access to, how it is presented and who gets access to what data.”
Woodward said many enterprises were running a number of different databases in different areas of their organisation, which was not the most efficient practice.
“It just does not happen that companies know exactly what they want to do and go in on a green field site,” she said. “You get one department that puts in a system, and then another department does something else. It would have made sense for them to discuss it first and put the same thing in, but it is just not how it tends to work.
“Part of IT’s job is then to say we now have five Oracle databases, why do we not consolidate them and make things more efficient and streamlined,” she added.
Organisations can buy specific tools from smaller vendors, which they can then use to improve their access to or use of the information stored in their databases, according to Woodward.
“Even reporting tools from small companies will integrate with all the major databases,” she said. “As a software vendor you need to be able to say your reporting tool can be used everywhere.”
Woodward said the amounts of data being collected by enterprises would continue to grow and grow.
“For example once RFID (radio frequency identification) takes a foothold, very high volumes of data will come in,” she said. “Take something like dairy goods that have to be chilled at all times, from storage to the shop-floor, they are looking at including temperature sensors to check at intervals to make sure the temperature of the goods remains the same.”
“If you have volumes of data like that it is an order of magnitude greater than what we now have. The more data you have the greater the challenge is to get something out of it, and present it in a way that a human being can use it to make a decision.”
At present the majority of information in databases is structured, i.e. it fits within clearly designed parameters or fields. In the future the data stored might not be so simply organised, said Woodward.
“One interesting innovation will be the introduction of unstructured data, that is not held in rows and columns,” she said. “Increasingly customers are looking at the way you would search using Google and looking to bring that into the database. That is where some interesting stuff will happen, but whether it will happen over the next 12months I am not sure.”
Blumhoff said the model of large storage units in dusty basements within the enterprise, would be slowly phased out.
“We are moving towards service-based relationships, where I do not need to retain the information locally all the time, I have a trusted partner that actually manages the infrastructure for me,” said Blumhoff.
“From a database perspective that means actually moving into a shared-service environment and offering repository and memory based services for the retrieval of information.”
In the longer term Blumhoff said the database as we know it would fade away.
“What has made a step forward is the virtualisation of data into memory,” said Blumhoff. “There will continue to be an emotional need for a database, so we can go and find the data on the disc in a format we can understand, but from a technology perspective, things like virtual computing, grid computing and service based architecture will require different things from databases and I think that is where we will see the transformations. Overall we will see the database slowly but surely disappear.”