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February 14, 2013

Social data and the tech industry: Q&A with Datasift

CBR sat down with Nick Halstead, CTO of Datasift to discuss finding talent in the technology industry, social data and how the company developed the re-tweet button.

By Tineka Smith

Why did you choose to base your company in the Thames Valley rather than Tech City?

When we researched locations and access to talent that involved computer programmers we realised that the Thames valley is really the centre of all technology in the UK. Right next to Reading you’ve got Oracle, Microsoft, and Dell. If you then actually look at all the companies involved in enterprise software they are all located in the Bracknell, Reading area. 5 years ago before Tech City was developed Thames Valley was viewed as a great and supportive area to start a tech business.

Do you think the UK will catch up to the level of the US in technology and innovation?

I think we’ve got areas of expertise here in the UK. Cambridge is obviously well known for its semiconductor research. I think we will always be behind in terms of start-ups. We don’t have the cultural fit that the west coast of America does. We just don’t have the same approach to entrepreneurism.

A real barrier for us is that our culture doesn’t generate enough angel investors. The investors tend to be more traditional angel investors that are ex bankers, so they don’t have the experience to fund a tech company and tend to be very conservative about the investments they make.

Why does Datasift keep engineering in the UK but sales and marketing in the US?
The market for the talent we look for has so many companies competing for the same thing in the U.S. Competition for talent is at an all time high. Here in the UK we are able to pick and choose. The talent is very much here in the UK but it means that we don’t have hundreds of other companies all trying to compete for the same staff. We will always keep engineering here in the UK because of that.

Could you tell me how us the development of the re-tweet button came about?

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When Twitter was in its first year, we identified that one of the strongest elements of Twitter was sharing content. People were constantly sharing links so we built a website back then that tracked the popularity of those links. At the time we thought – Wouldn’t be so obvious that we encourage people to share more links? We then made a button that could be embedded on a website which allowed you to put it on a blog or site and encourage people to share. It was the first time anyone had made a button that allowed you to create a signal back onto a social network. We invented it. The impact was that it went from zero to five hundred thousand websites and the whole of Yahoo. We were servicing about 1.5 billion buttons every day. That built a great relationship with Twitter because 1.5 billion page impressions a day generates a lot of traffic back to the site and it helped Twitter originally grow to where they are today. Without the sharing aspect none of that would have happened. Then obviously it was history which resulted in Facebook and Google + copying it to lead to where we are now.

How do you think the proposal by the European Commission to give the people the right to forgotten will affect the social data industry?

In Europe we already have the cookie laws that went through which made European websites less competitive than the US. You frighten users off when the first thing you do is warn them about privacy on your site. This is potentially damaging – especially when the market for big data is not even at its peak yet. There’s billions being spent in this market and it could cripple Europe’s ability to be competitive in that market. We have huge amounts of data stored that deals with historical information of users. It really does depend on how it’s implemented and the level of making people anonymous after a period of time. In the end, however, it will mean less companies starting up in Europe because of it and it will mean less investment into Europe. Everyone will just move their businesses to the U.S.

The bottom line is that consumers are the ones that suffer in the end because the reality is that most of these sites – just like advertising- make their business from selling data and the ability to sell consumer things in an accurate sense. Big data tries to gain some value from understanding the depth of this data so you don’t get charged or targeted for products you don’t use. We’ll have to wait and see but I’m certainly not supportive of the proposal.

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