A webcam that records every move? Bring it on

My Week

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The Independent Online

One of the joys of being a journalist is sometimes getting to see things first.

So it was this week, when I was introduced to Comprobo, a company that has developed a very clever technology that may transform the way companies train their staff, finance firms sell their products and school pupils do exams – the numerous possible uses are that broad.

I know many of us do not view banks kindly but try to look at things from their point of view. They’re accused of mis-selling, which very often they have been doing. But frequently, they haven’t and proving so is extremely difficult. What Comprobo has come up with is a way of recording and storing exactly what someone saw when they made a transaction online.

It literally takes over the webcam in your computer so it’s filming what you’re watching. It can insert tests into the form-filling process to check you’ve read the information properly and understand it, before moving on – and it can capture you saying that you do.

When I met Julian Ranger, the chairman of Comprobo, I put it to him that this sounded awfully Big Brother, that people might resent their webcam filming them. “It’s true, we will be taking pictures of you doing what you’re doing – but only of  what you’re doing then, not anything else – it’s with your agreement, and the pictures will only be looked at should a dispute occur. The film will be securely stored away,” he said.

“Take a case of someone saying ‘I never saw that percentage figure’. We can check the records and say, ‘Oh yes, you did. You hovered over it for 10 seconds.’”

What Comprobo can do, said Ranger, is “to provide a complete record of everything that someone has read through the journey of a transaction”.

The software was developed by Robin Hurst, an independent financial adviser, and Patrick Collins, with a background in pharma. Both saw the need for a way of proving that compliance and training had been done diligently, that more than box-ticking had occurred, and by the designated person. Without that, training was open to abuse and companies could not prove their staff had been properly trained.

The uses go far beyond employee training, although that is where they first had the idea. It can be used in selling financial products, education, in online exams, in form-filling for insurance – “anything where there may be a requirement to prove later you did something, that it was you, or it was done for you”.

There’s no disputing Ranger when he says: “There are two trends that are running in parallel. One is that organisations are being asked to provide more and more evidence for everything they do. The other is that more and more activities are graduating online.”

Comprobo may have found the solution.

A football strip that reeks of ambition

What possesses some people? I found myself thinking this at a party in London.

Held one evening at the very top of the Gherkin in the City, it was truly spectacular. The host was Paul Casson, an old boy of my grammar school (he was some years ahead of me and we didn’t know each other) who went off to make his fortune in telecoms in the US, in Texas.

Having made a packet, Casson has gone and bought Barrow AFC, the football club of our home town in Cumbria. The purpose of the bash at the Gherkin? To launch Barrow’s new kit.

Er, Barrow is 300 miles away from London, and they play in the Vanarama Conference North, which is about as far from the Champions League as it’s possible to get. Yet, there was Casson giving a party that would do any London Premier League glamour team proud.

We could have been the owners of Arsenal or Chelsea as we gazed out across the capital and watched the models strut their stuff – the strip is from the same supplier that clothes Eton and Harrow. Yes, it was surreal but that was the point: Casson sees ownership of the football club as part of a process. He hopes to use success on the field (they’re riding high in the league already) to inject some self-belief, some confidence into the industrial town.

Casson was blessed with a good education at the grammar school and was able to go to university, then to the US, and to triumph in business. He wants others to think the same way. There’s too much of a downtrodden feel about the place – as there is about many similar towns in the North of England – and he wants the people there to have the sort of optimism that he possessed.

Hence the choice of the kit supplier, the Gherkin and an amazingly generous party attended by more than 100, at which the champagne, wine and food never stopped coming. The statement of ambition was clear. I arrived imagining he was mad, and I left believing that Britain, not just Barrow, could do with more Paul Cassons.

Our best defence against supermarket bullies

It was encouraging to meet Christine Tacon. She’s the Groceries Code Adjudicator, charged with defending suppliers against the bully-boy tactics of the major supermarkets.

She’s taken some flak for not being more aggressive by launching high-profile legal actions and hitting the big grocery retailers hard. But she only has a staff of six, including herself; evidence is hard to gather because producers don’t want to lose their contracts; and massed against her are some of the country’s most powerful corporations, armed with clever lawyers.

Confrontation, she reasoned, will get nowhere. Far better to collaborate, for her to make clear to the supermarkets she knows what they’re doing and they must desist, or else she will reach for a legal remedy. I was impressed. If I was I one of the country’s supermarkets I would think twice before crossing her.