SpinVox: My initial reaction

My phone started to buzz this morning at about 930am with questions about SpinVox. Had I seen the news? How was I reacting? What next for the global behemoth? Are their days numbered?

Alex picked up on the news earlier and had a post up here on MIR quickly. I’m writing this on my BlackBerry so I will put in a link later on (Done).

The jist of today’s excitement is that ‘hard proof’ that SpinVox’s use of a legion of ‘sweatshop’ transcribers has been obtained by some publications (particularly the BBC).

The use of humans in the transcription process for SpinVox has never been a secret. When I first sat down with ‘Double-D’ (Daniel Doulton), the company’s co-founder, he was abundantly open about their use of humans to correct, enhance and revise their transcription engine.

For example, transcribing ‘call me’ (the only message my father ever, ever sends me via SpinVox) is pretty easy for a computer to learn, especially when it’s got hundreds of thousands of examples to consolidate and learn from. However, ‘Hi can you call me after you’ve spoken to Sofia and finished the synchronised three-stage backup process,’ is a lot more challenging. It gets worse when you’re giving mobile numbers or door numbers. Screw the rest of the text – I *need* that to be accurate.

My understanding of how SpinVox works is that when the system can’t do a reliable ‘call me’ quickie translation, certain phrases are passed/escalated to humans for transcription.

I’ve no trouble with that per se. SpinVox’s primary use case for me is voicemail transcription – so I need the phone numbers, door numbers, or anything critical to be transcribed properly. Once or twice there’s been an error in a call-back number in my experience, but typically speaking, I have no trouble with accuracy. Because somewhere along the line, a human guaranteed it. How do I know this? Well, I don’t – specifically – but I can’t see how technology can be that good, yet. Otherwise we’d be using the SpinVox stuff for interacting with our phone bank accounts in realtime.

The key point for me is that humans were – or at least, supposedly – used sparingly. I didn’t and don’t mind getting semi non-sensical messages from SpinVox provided I can understand the rough meaning.

If you’re telling me that every message I receive is being transcribed by a chap in Egypt, well, now I’ve got a problem. Next to nothing I receive by voicemail is ‘secret’. But I don’t work for the security services, or a billion dollar company. The moment the humans-for-escalation-only-illusion is shattered, I’ve got a problem. Further, I’ve got a problem with the mainstream tech media. Because my clients read that. And now that SpinVox is getting raked over by many, I’m potentially going to start getting comments and questions about my use of the service. Because every sodding time you call me (and get voicemail) a little SpinVox advertisement plays (‘your voicemail will be converted to text by SpinVox’ or something). Now I’ve got a strained look on my face.

They’re nice, competent people at SpinVox. Only a few nights ago I sat with their COO, Paul, for a little while in a Chiswick Pub. A smart, competent cookie. I know their PR supremo, Jane – although I haven’t met their head of PR yet. And of course, I know their Social Media Genius, James Whatley.

T’was James to whom I turned this afternoon, asking what was going on at SpinVox. For years James regularly contributed to SMS Text News (and later, as it became, Mobile Industry Review) and he thus kept me continually up to date on the company’s news, sometimes often on a daily basis. He never needed to hawk me stories or updates – I was always a SpinVox convert, using their service heavily since I first got it. Alas that special relationship came to an end in late March with the MIR changes (subscription-only then re-launch as MIR 3.0 and I haven’t spoken with James or SpinVox much at all recently.

But I thought I’d give it a go today. James is the default one-stop-shop for SpinVox questions, issues and business development for most of the internet. I’m not quite clear on James’ status with SpinVox – Alex comments that he’s part time/contract – and his usually super-dooper-active Twitter account (@whatleydude) has been silent since the 21st of July. I was hoping to see some updates, clarifications or a link to a response from SpinVox that I could publish or link to from here. Ah just looked at his Twitter stream and he’s away ’til Friday.

No bother. I then looked up @Spinvox (232 followers vs James’ 3,800). Nothing. Nothing since last week. Goodness me. You’d think someone would have grabbed the account and published something.

This aside, what does the future hold for SpinVox? Well, I hope they’ve hired some very good crisis PR professionals. Thinking of all the businesses I tried to convert to SpinVox (as an avid customer) in the past couldn’t get past the ‘but someone might be listening’ issue. I wrote them off as a bit too narrow-minded. After watching the BBC footage – regardless of the argument – I think they’ll never touch the service in future.

If the UK mainstream media – the broadsheets in particular – pick this story up, I think it’s potentially game-over for SpinVox. I can’t imagine a European operator going live with the service after such ‘privacy’ issues.

On the other hand, if Vodafone wanted a good deal from SpinVox, I dare say their CEO would get a really good multi-country special offer from a back-against-the-wall SpinVox management team.

As many are commenting, today’s press – if it continues for a few days – could well kill the company.

Like contributor Alex, I think it’s probably time for me to choose a new voicemail provider — MIR Bell (the super dooper private telephony service I’ve mentioned before, is probably the way ahead for me). Alternatively I think I might swap to HulloMail.

  • Pingback: mobilegd()

  • So spinvox might die before voicemail dies. Wouldn't that require time travel?

  • Whatleydude is on holiday currently but SpinVox's statement in reply to the BBC article can be found here – http://blog.spinvox.com/2009/07/23/spinvoxs-res

  • Pingback: mobilegd()

  • Good to see some outreach, Matt, nice one!

  • Name

    I’m curious to know why think it’s time to to chose a new voicemail provider, Ewan.

    Is it because you are concerned about the privacy issues with human redaction of your messages, or is it because your Spinvox recommendations look tarnished in light of the way that Spinvox have apparently been caught with their trousers down?

    This is certainly very embarrassing for the Spinvox team. Equally so for all those in the media who bought into the idea of a very novel software algorithm called “D2”. Only time and PR will tell how this spans…. A cynic might suggest that, with a financial crisis looming and no where left to turn, this is just the sort of event that could precipitate an almost timely fire sale at Spinvox….

  • emilymcdaid

    Hi Ewan. Great post. We've been watching this and posted a story on our blog taking the angle of, “what should they do to fight this media shit storm?” http://hatchpr.blogspot.com/

    Their silence has only fuelled the storm.

    In essence they need to come clean, as clean as they've ever done, about exactly where the technology is limited and what it does. Real honesty and straightforward facts are required. This is the only way to fight back on these kind of crises. In my opinion their blog response, which came several hours too late, just deflects the main questions the BBC posed and isn't going to help them dig out of this. (http://blog.spinvox.com/)

    The best response would actually be for them to publish graphs proving i) how many voicemails / what percentage are listened to ii) what sorts of info is usually in those voicemails – numbers, etc – that make it hard for the algorithms to work iii) exactly how their encryption engine works iv) exactly what the timeline of 'learning' looks like to prove that the 'learning' is actually that – and presumably over time decreases the number of VMs listened to – and not just Joe listening to your voicemail because the technology spit out nonsense.

  • daverage

    What is MIR Bell ??

  • That, I'll be able to tell you soon!

  • daverage

    Sounds interesting… i will keep following your twitter 😀

    I use hullomail now and am very happy with it!

  • I am disappointed by the way SpinVox managed the episode — and to a certain extent, the greater media reaction (i.e. the story boiled down to 'SpinVox is run by legions of call centres') does tarnish the recommendations I've made. I still have the service activated on my phone; I haven't yet made time to deactivate, but I've spent a significant amount of time over the last 24 hours considering what I should use as an alternative.

  • I am disappointed by the way SpinVox managed the episode — and to a certain extent, the greater media reaction (i.e. the story boiled down to 'SpinVox is run by legions of call centres') does tarnish the recommendations I've made. I still have the service activated on my phone; I haven't yet made time to deactivate, but I've spent a significant amount of time over the last 24 hours considering what I should use as an alternative.

Powered by WordPress. Designed by Woo Themes

Real Time Analytics