Monday, March 29, 2010

Even the Obama administration doesn't like Rudd's internet "filtering"

THE US has weighed into the row over the Rudd Government's plan to censor the internet, saying it has raised concerns about it with Australian officials.

The Obama administration wants to encourage an open internet to enhance global economic growth and security and is mounting a diplomatic assault on threats to the open web around the world.

The US State Department, America's foreign office, has publicly aired concern about the internet filtering plan championed by Communications Minister Stephen Conroy.

Responding to questions about the filter from commentary website The Punch, US State Department spokesperson Noel Clay said: "The US and Australia are close partners on issues related to cyber matters generally, including national security and economic issues. "We do not discuss the details of specific diplomatic exchanges, but can say that in the context of that ongoing relationship, we have raised our concerns on this matter with Australian officials."

The Rudd Government has faced increasing criticism over internet filtering in recent weeks after it released submissions by companies including Google, Yahoo and Microsoft on how to improve its policy.

Many of the submissions were highly critical of the filtering plan. Concerns included that the scope of content to be censored was too broad, that the filter would be ineffective or slow internet speeds, and that the list of banned material could be leaked to the public.

Under the plan, Australian internet service providers like Telstra, Optus and iiNet would be forced to block access to a secret list of webpages containing refused classification material.


Patients' lives ebb in 'ramped' ambulances

PATIENTS with potentially life-threatening conditions are waiting more than 30 minutes in ambulances before being admitted to emergency departments, new figures show. At Logan Hospital on March 12, the average waiting time for Code 1 patients – those considered serious enough for paramedics to use lights and sirens to get them to hospital – was 50 minutes.

Documents obtained by the Queensland Opposition reveal the Nambour and Royal Brisbane and Women's hospitals have also recorded greater than 30-minute waits for Code 1 patients on separate days in the past five weeks.

The figures, obtained from the Queensland Ambulance Case Information Reporting database, show that for the whole of February the average wait in an ambulance before admission to the Logan Hospital for Code 1 cases was 41 minutes.

Ambulance union organiser Kroy Day said the Queensland Government should be ashamed. "The Government is consistently under-resourcing emergency departments for their demand," said Mr Day, of the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union.

"There's four patients that we're aware of . . . that have died on stretchers waiting to get into a hospital over the past three years. "Whether they would have died anyway, we don't know. But for people to be waiting on an ambulance stretcher when they're already at hospital for an extended period is just unacceptable. It's appalling."

Mr Day said that when paramedics had to wait for lengthy periods outside EDs, they were unable to attend other seriously ill patients, compounding the problem.

Opposition health spokesman Mark McArdle said the leaked figures were damning, given Code 1 emergencies encompassed the highest-priority patients such as those experiencing chest pain, severe blood loss and people involved in serious car accidents. "Ambulance ramping has been a problem in Queensland for years. Now we can see for the first time the horrendously long waits seriously ill patients with life-threatening conditions are enduring," he said.

Australian Medical Association Queensland president Mason Stevenson said anything less than prompt treatment for code 1 patients was unacceptable. "Paramedics do a wonderful job. They are highly trained, especially to deal with life-threatening emergencies," he said. "But they don't have all the services, medications and specialist care that is available in our major public hospitals."

Queensland Health's acting Director-General Michael Walsh said the department was investing $145.2 million in ED upgrades in nine of the state's busiest emergency departments, including Logan. He said an expansion was already under way at Nambour.


Rudd on his own with "clean" coal

AUSTRALIAN taxpayers are the only financial backers for Kevin Rudd's $100 million-a-year global clean coal initiative, as world leaders have failed to match their resounding endorsement of the idea at the G8 meeting last July with a single dollar.

Praised by US President Barack Obama as a "significant" announcement, the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute, which is charged with speeding the development and take-up of clean coal technology, has attracted more than 200 of the world's biggest economies and companies as members. But to date their only financial commitment is to guarantee $10 in the event the institute goes broke.

Last night, the Prime Minister's office played down the lack of financial support from other governments, saying the institute's board was responsible for capital raising but to date had been primarily focused on securing membership and conducting a global audit of the state of carbon capture and storage projects and research of the technology.

The opposition said it showed other countries believed CCS was costly and that a plant would not be commercially operating for at least 20 years.

Mr Rudd's spokeswoman said it was anticipated CCS technology would be discussed during the US President's mid-year visit to Australia. "The Australian government is pleased that the GCCSI is co-ordinating and helping fund international work to deploy and commercialise CCS," she said. "Investing in clean energy and energy efficiency remain key planks of the government's climate change policy, including our $4.5 billion Clean Energy Initiative."

Dale Seymour, the institute's senior vice-president of strategy, told The Australian: "The fact we've got 30-odd national governments and some sub-national governments as members is a great first-up indication that they support (the institute). "It's not about the money in the first instance. Someone had to come out and provide the leadership and the direction in the first instance and the Australian Prime Minister has done that."

Mr Seymour said one of the institute's medium-term agendas was "to create a value proposition sufficient that others will see value in investing in us".

"Their obligation to be a member was that they would promote and facilitate and actively engage in the acceleration of CCS projects and they've all agreed to do that," he said.

The institute expects this year to hand out $50m in funding in direct support for global carbon capture and storage projects around the world.

Mr Seymour said the institute had received about $500m in applications for the funding, which would be used to burst through barriers to their implementation. It is also commissioning detailed work on how to overcome financial, commercial, policy, regulatory and legal issues to enable projects to proceed.

Opposition energy spokesman Ian Macfarlane said the failure of world governments to make a financial contribution to the institute reflected the fact that "everyone from Rudd down knows there is not going to be one of these commercial plants commence for at least 20 years".

At the G8 meeting in L'Aquila last year, governments had been looking for an announcement that sounded great, but "everyone has done their sums" and the technology was too expensive, he said.

Mr Macfarlane said Mr Obama's announcement of $US8bn ($8.9bn) in government guarantees for nuclear power plants in the US, announced last month, showed the President's thinking. If the Australian government were serious it would look at nuclear power for base load electricity generation, he added.

Mr Macfarlane said Mr Rudd should have learned the lesson from the Howard government's involvement in the AP6 (the Asia Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate) where the Americans and other major countries had enthusiastically backed the plan but had not contributed substantial funds.

Mr Seymour said that, although the timing was "tight", he was confident the G8's goal of launching 20 carbon capture and storage demonstration plants by the end of this year could be met.

There were a significant number of large-scale proposals around the world being assessed in Europe, the US and Canada in addition to the $2.5bn CCS flagships initiative in Australia.

Mr Obama has announced a taskforce aimed at getting up to 10 plants up and running by 2016 and EU nations have $6.3bn set aside in order to develop CCS and renewable energy projects.


Don’t criticize call centres (?)

The writer below has obviously never called Telstra. The only time I ever get anywhere with them is when I start to shout -- and shout repetitively at that

Everyone loves to hate call centres, but it’s time to give them a break because they generally provide a convenient and effective service. If you’re foaming at the mouth right now thinking that the ten minutes you’ve just spent on hold being told “your call is important” was neither convenient nor effective, consider the alternative.

In many cases it’s a drive down to your local shops, a few minutes spent hunting for a parking spot and then a few more walking past shops before you get to the retail outlet where you want to conduct a transaction.

Once there, you’ll wait for a few minutes in a queue, then probably get sucked into a calorific impulse buy during the return journey.

Even if you get in and out as fast as possible you’re looking at 20 minutes to get something done at a local bank branch or Medicare office, plus the cost of petrol, parking and that snack you didn’t need.

Is that really so bad compared to a few minutes on hold?

But, I hear you saying, you are sometimes forced to drive to a retail shopfront because so many call centres these days use offshore worker and it is jolly hard to understand what they say.

Plenty of Australian companies recognise that the offshore call centre experience is not always great and they’re fighting back in two ways, one of which is bringing their call centres back to Australia because they recognise that while going offshore is cheap, they’ll make more money in the long term by providing good customer service.

Another is by working with offshore call centres to improve their workers’ accents, or moving work to countries where staff speak English that’s easier on the Australian ear.

Across the industry, meanwhile, the prevailing wisdom now suggests that if you want to save money, simple “offshoring” is great, but the way to customers’ hearts is great customer service.

This admission is typical of the call centre industry, which generally works very hard to provide good service.

I run a podcast for call centre managers and whenever I attend the conferences and seminars where they congregate, I’m amazed at how genuinely they care about doing a really good job and the big investments companies make to improve service. For example, I know of call centres that spend the winter making plans to cope with events like a deluge of calls after summer electrical storms.

Those plans use amazing technologies that can find anyone inside an organisation that has ever worked on the call centre and turn their desks in to an extra call centre extension during busy times.

I’ve also spoken to call centres that have devised new ways to improve the accuracy of predictions about when repair people will show up to repair problems that can’t be fixed over the phone. That creates better service on the phone and in the real world.

Another reason to appreciate call centres is that the industry is huge. I’m told by Dr. Catriona Wallace at analyst house that more than 300,000 people work in the industry in Australia, and that growth outpaces the rest of the economy.

Plenty of those jobs are part time or work-from-home, so call centres offer a lot of flexible work for Australians.

Australia is also very good at providing call centre services, so much so that last year an Indian company acquired a local call centre company because it wanted its smarts. The Indian company now plans to more than double the workforce here in Australia – and some Aussies will probably end up taking calls from overseas as offshored call centre agents.

That’s a man-bites-dog story if ever there was one, but the mainstream media ignored it because call centres generally only get a run when the news is bad.

Not every call centre is excellent and not every interaction with the good ones ends well. But don’t let the bad apples and the occasional thorny problem make you think that the people running call centres don’t care.

It’s just not easy to take a few tens of thousands of calls a day and get everything right, every time. Most try as hard as they can to provide a service that’s more convenient – and cheaper - than the alternatives, and we should all appreciate that by being kinder to our call centres.


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