Dark side of the #uksnow clouds

I originally wrote up my view of the #uksnow story back in February.

I’ve used it a lot since then to illustrate a few points:

– How easy it is to drive an application from Twitter
– That if an idea is a good one, it will take off; useful features will survive, weak will disappear
– Within 12 hours you can create a national-scale ‘service’ with no funding or planning
– If you have the basics of structured data (in this case, time, place and condition), and they’re freely available, then someone will do something useful with them
– It was all a happy collaboration coming about as a result of three people who’d never met each other all doing something to build on previous actions (well, in the case of Ben Marsh, doing rather a lot!)
– And today, it spontaneously resurrected itself when the snow came – with no centralised marketing campaign, no one blowing a whistle to stay “go, start reporting like this…”. Just people remembering it and finding it interesting enough to do again.

Ben went on to do lots of other projects along similar themes – and has done a great job today keeping the snow map (mostly) running under the sudden unexpected flood of interest.

I went back to pondering the art of public information and service design, and the role that government should (or should not) take. And to creating a celebrity motorbike.

But I missed one little bit from the story – or at least played it down.
That happy little team of collaborators (never met, never spoken) weren’t all entirely happy about how it went. One, let’s call him Mr B – the first to use the #uksnow tag – was a little grumpy at the time. “Stop using my tag to report snow levels,” he said back then. “I made it for people to talk about snow news – don’t go imposing your standards on it.” Without access to the original tweets and posts I have to paraphrase, but I think it’s a pretty fair synopsis.

When I (gently) tweeted back then that while you can create a hashtag, you can’t own it, he responded by blocking me. Nice behaviour.

But then #uksnow got all huge and popular, and Ben got more and more press, deservedly, and now we find out that it’s made the Top Ten trending topics of 2009. Number EIGHT. Globally. Wow. That’s some story to have a part in.

So comes this tweet today:

@benmarsh “Application based on original hashtag #uksnow devised by @[Mr B]” then I’ll grant Intellectual property assign [sic]

Repeated several times today – directed at Ben and at @datastore who ran the Guardian story.

I’m pretty sure Ben’s not responded. It’s hard to see how he could. Is that a serious question? IP in a hashtag? That the originator wasn’t keen about having formatting applied to back in February in any case?

Mr B obviously wants to be a part of the story – and he is a part of the story, and could have played this very well – if acting in a collaborative spirit. Recognising that this sort of stuff ONLY happens through free reuse, a willingness to take what others have done and move things onwards, and most of all that it’s the inherent quality of the idea itself that makes it fly – not what it’s called, or whatever particular feature any one person thinks it should have.

Mr B had a go today at suggesting that contributors put road conditions in as well – “That’ll make it useful!” – he said. It’s actually a bloody good idea. But it didn’t take off. Sometimes that happens. It’s not always what you say, but very often how you say it; and how you use networks and trusted relationships that you’ve carefully built up to say it.

We’re all coming up with new stuff; working in new ways. Trying to achieve more by throwing down boundaries than would ever be achieved by putting them up. Clicking into a sense of community and just seeing what happens.

But I will speak a kind word for Mr B – his intervention has raised some of the harder questions about the practicalities of collaboration – how do we protect interests? #uksnow has to date just been a bit of fun, but what if it had significant commercial value in its own right?

Ben did all the hard work (Mr B created a conversation, I spotted the opportunity to structure it, but it was a fleeting action for both of us – Ben grafted with coding, hosting, a flood of press enquiries and so on, and deserves every bit of his kudos). Mr B put his role in his bio. I’ve put my part in mine. Ben’s put his part in his. That’s all good.

I’ve sought to tell this as a great example of a Power of Information story – just glad to have had a small part in it.

Ultimately though, behaviours and attitude count for a lot. Mr B has got a little more strenuous this evening:

he hijacked my TRAVELnews/info source corrupted into MAPPING application ie no practical NEWS he agreed the credit #UKsnow


creating a hashtag he cound have used #snowUKmap why hijack my hashtag whcih was serving a different but practical purpose?


I’m afraid in this light, Mr B’s insistence on IP rights looks, well… you decide. Leave a comment.

Category: Other


11 Responses

  1. Phil says:

    JB’s doing a fine job of making himself look like a complete tosser, isn’t he?

  2. Hazel says:

    Geesh ‘Mr B’ is having a little bit of a hissy isn’t he?

  3. Neil says:

    For those of interest, our blessed friend google now indexes twitter quickly. . .you can spot the Mr B.

    My view is that, you cannot take ownership of a hashtag, you cannot tell people not to use it.

    If people decide to form a structure (that happened in essence organically) then let hem, if someone decides that they can use that structure to create something then so be it.

  4. Rupert says:

    Wow. That’s really sad.
    The Mr B part, not the other bit, which is brilliant.
    Why the need to call him Mr B? We’ll all search & find him. He wants credit and traffic – let him have it, from this blog post.
    Meanwhile, I’m going to go out and coin a thousand useful generic hashtags so that I can issue cease and desist letters if anybody else ever starts using them. It’s like cybersquatting, but it’s free. There’s no results for #thekoran – I’ll start with that.

  5. prclarke says:

    It was something I thought about quite a bit – not everyone will feel a need to identify him, I think. Certainly it’s not my intention that he gets a flood of direct comments as a result. But I’d welcome his participation in a debate, as I would anyone.

    You are the first #tagsquatter! Congratulations. Oh, I now *own* #tagsquatter, btw. I’ll be round for my royalties if I see it again ;)

    A few comments so far have been a bit abusive, and I won’t put them up. Keep ’em civil, people. Or funny. Funny and acerbic.

  6. Feargal Hogan says:

    I love IP fights. The winner is usually the loser.

  7. John H says:


    Incidentally, that’s a great example of why the term “intellectual property” can be so misleading. Mr B “invented” the #uksnow hashtag, so there *must* be “intellectual property” in it that belongs to him. Right?

    But intellectual property is just an umbrella term for a disparate collection of differing rights and monopolies. “#uksnow” can’t be patented, hasn’t been registered as a trade mark (even if it could be), is too insignificant/unoriginal to qualify for copyright protection, has no commercial trading history to support a passing off claim, and above all fails to meet the qualifications for protection as a plant variety. ;-)

    You get the point. Whenever someone starts asserting that they own “the IP”, the first question should be: “/What/ IP? What type?” I’ve come across heated arguments between parties to a contract over who will own “the IP” when in fact, on looking closely, there was no “IP” there worth fighting over. People had just latched on to “IP” as a general concept, as it appears Mr B may have done.

  8. Hmm. From my point of view, given how Twitter works and ‘what’ it is – I would assert that when you “create” a hashtag you’re releasing it into the public domain.

    If I came up with a brilliant idea but then broadcast it over a communication medium which is intrinsically open (and not even restricted to users of the service – since anyone on the whole internet can potentially see a tweet in search results).. well.. I’d expect to have forfeited any rights to claim ownership.

  9. It’s a shame that MrB cannot be happy to be credited with first using the term ‘#uksnow.’ If he were that concerned about road/traffic conditions, snow is not the only thing that affects them, of course.
    To claim IP rights in ‘#uksnow’ seems as bizarre as claiming exclusive rights to ‘snow’ or ‘UK.’ He could, of course, claim IP rights in a database he might create of UK traffic conditions…but he might well find that people would not be willing to contribute the necessary data if someone then tries to claim rights over that information (or even to charge for it).
    I think that we do have problems (especially in the UK it seems) with people’s lack of understanding of IP legislation.

  10. Gary Gale says:

    Whilst I certainly empathise with “Mr B” (I’ll continue to play along with this pseudo-anonymity) it does seem that the point of Twitter is being missed.

    Unless you explicitly protect your stream, you’re participating in a broadcast medium; you put your comments and thoughts into the public domain. As Twitter themselves say “Our Services are primarily designed to help you share information with the world. Most of the information you provide to us is information you are asking us to make public. This includes not only the messages you Tweet and the metadata provided with Tweets, such as when you Tweeted, but also the lists you create, the people you follow, the Tweets you mark as favorites or Retweet and many other bits of information.” (http://twitter.com/privacy)

    Actually it goes further than that “By submitting, posting or displaying Content on or through the Services, you grant us a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free license (with the right to sublicense) to use, copy, reproduce, process, adapt, modify, publish, transmit, display and distribute such Content in any and all media or distribution methods (now known or later developed).” (http://twitter.com/tos)

    Thus, if you put something onto Twitter for which you wish to claim intellectual property rights on then either a) you should be able to show prior art claiming this, perhaps on a blog which you control and assert copyright over or b) Twitter isn’t the medium to do this in the first place.

    By all means bask in the reflected glory of your followers, retweets and mentions and say “look … I first thought of that, aren’t I clever?” … that’s what we all do on here to a greater or a lesser degree.

    But to throw comments into the public domain, see them become successful and then shout “stop! that’s not right, do what I want and how I tell you” shows a fundamental lack of understanding of how Twitter, broadcast media and social media works in the first place.

    Overall, I’m left feeling that “Mr B” could have rightly come out of this as someone who was verging on visionary with the origin of the #uksnow hashtag but instead comes across completely the reverse. The whole situation saddens me.

  11. Julian Bray says:

    No business like #UKsnow Business – How it all began..thanks to Schofield!

    We have to go back to the last deluge of snow in February 2009, I had just recently come out of hospital with an all new metal knee joint (to match the other knee implant eight months earlier; as a result I was confined to the house and ramped up my time on Twitter virtually day and night as it was impossible to sleep, the pain still resisting 8 daily Diclofenacs!

    Phillip Schofield, the TV Presenter on ITV’s This Morning was busy tweeting that due to snow he might not get into the studio from his vast estate on the top of a hill. At the time, accurate immediate local snow reports were hard to come by, the Met Office would ramble on, and on, issue warnings for whole sections of the country and at times compete with the Environment Agency but still failed to give you precise, immediate, very local snow reports.

    As the objective was to get Scofield to his ITV studio in Central London, plotting a possible route, I suggested to my happy band of followers, we all immediately report and retweet snow conditions using a kind of pre-determined shorthand namely a twitter hashtag #UKsnow followed by a FULL postcode and the depth of snow in inches, plus any other info in the remaining tweet.

    Armed with this information, inputting the whole postcode into websites like “Up My Street”, would give you the locality and so on. Crude but effective. It launched properly about 11am and then began to climb even knocking the USA Super Bowl off the twitter leaders board, this woke up America and suddenly my humble hashtag was climbing even higher. “Whats with the snow thing in England?” They would wail…

    This caught the eye of a few lurking UK software developers and various mashups began to appear @OlliBray (no relation) had one but used balloons and these overlapped. @BenMarsh started a snow map, but then mass tweeted his developer crowd and (I like to think unwittingly) changed and lost the whole travel information aspect by converting part of the data into a simple snow map. Ideal for software experts and assorted computer nerds but of little use if you wanted detailed travel information.

    You have to understand, the first Ben Marsh UKsnow map didn’t give details of the tweets, so in effect hijacked my information hashtag for his own program and OMITTED the travel information requirement

    Given a few prods at the time by the media and by a few fellow developers, Ben then acknowledged where he got the hashtag from and has indeed made a lot of money out it (and good luck to him) with other programs based on the #UKsnow program, he did one for Vodafone to market Holiday destinations and roaming charges for example.

    As a lot of my then and current followers helped to get the hashtag off the ground, long before Ben opened his map website, creative copyright is I respectfully still mine as originator of the made up word UKsnow. We also suggested the BBC use UK SNOW for detailed snow reports, which they now do.

    Don’t get me wrong, the NEW UKsnow map from @Benmarsh does the job very well, as he now incorporates the twitter feed but it would take very little to acknowledge that he didn’t start it all off and that a lot of other people got the ball rolling bewfore he came along… including @schofe so Ben in the style of Desert Island Discs UKsnow hashtag originated by Julian Bray and developed by Ben Marsh. That would satisfy the UK Copyright, Designs and Patents Act in the UK and I’d be more than happy to grant a licence for UKsnow and SnowUK…. both of which will trigger the Ben Marsh map but hopefully the newer SnowUk will contain emergency news and practical help for those stranded by putting in the precise position, a hunderd calls to the appropriate emergency service will ensure help really is on the way..

    So I’m not saying stop or cease just acknowledge that others were involved, The Daily Telegraph wrote up the whole story so its already in the public domain and for the rest of you flaming away just don’t believe your own hype… justb relax and enjoy life…Cheers JB

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