A panoramic photograph of Malham Cove in North Yorkshire.

The best app I (n)ever built and how to build more.

Tom Forth,

“We’re passionate about bringing bitchain technology to consumer finance so we can revolutionise how chopsticks work, all built around you!”. Startup bollocks. I don’t judge you for writing it. If you’ve had to repeat it in meetings, fair play. I’ve been there and I’ve done it. I’ll do it again if it helps raise the money or make the sales that let me do what pays my rent, pays my staff, and makes the world a bit better. But most of it is bollocks. If we can agree on that we’re cool.

What’s not bollocks is that a passionate team can make companies that shouldn’t work do amazing things.

Competition law

But first, competition law. My starting point is to hate competition law. The big state telling me that I can’t do things like sell my own drink called Coca Cola because a big corporation deserves to make bigger profits? No thanks. Some institution of the EU stopping two train companies from merging even though without their combined scale Europe has less chance of competing globally in that industry? Boo! I can make a big list of freedom-loving reasons why the market will just work if the state lets it. People can choose by themselves and that’s why we don’t need competition law.

But pragmatically, I’m a fan of competition law. Patents incentivise innovation. Copyright incentivises creativity. Trade marks and AOCs (I love AOCs, but that’s another blogpost) guarantee quality. Blocking mergers and splitting up monopolies increases competition, makes markets work better, and keeps innovation high and prices low for consumers.

Without US and EU competition law I think that you would be reading this on a worse phone, running a worse browser, that you paid more for. Internet Explorer 34.6 Corporate Edition on your Symbian Windows Embedded Internet Tablet. A steal at £1200 plus an ongoing subscription of £100/year for the Internet Plus pack, included in your Office 365 package. Awful.

I am happy that you’re enjoying this on a much better browser, on a much better phone, for much less money. And I think that you are because the US and the EU forced Microsoft to stop crushing its competition in the 1990’s.

I’m open to the same happening to Google and Facebook today if it’s necessary.


Back to startups. One of my favourite startups is Teacher Tapp. It’s an app. At 3:30pm every day an alert pops up on teachers’ phones and they spend two minutes answering four questions. They then see the answers to the previous day’s questions and are pointed to an interesting blog post or teaching resource.

I wrote the first version of Teacher Tapp. Well, that’s not really true. The idea was all the Teacher Tapp team’s — three former teachers passionate about knowing more about the profession and using that knowledge to improve it. I just sketched out an application structure as they told me what they wanted. And I drew some arrows on the diagram, set up a few database tables, and passed it on to my colleague Dan who worked with the TeacherTapp team to build the thing. It took about six months part-time, cost a thousandth of what the same app would cost government, and has been hugely successful in the nearly four years since.

Close to 10,000 teachers in the UK use the app each day. Every week their responses are weighted and normalised to produce clear analysis of the profession and its issues in a way that would be unimaginable without it. It is by far the world’s biggest such resource. It regularly forces government to change bad policies. It continually helps to improve policy.

Teacher Tapp is one of my favourite examples of how rapid sensing helps us make better decisions in a complex and chaotic world. Want to know how teachers feel about the UK government’s approach to ending the Covid-19-related lockdown? Split by the type of school they teach at? Split by their seniority? Split by region? Teacher Tapp can tell you. They probably already published it. I think we need much more sensing like this.

The key to the app’s success is of course the passion of its three founders. That’s why the “passion” thing matters for startups and why everyone else tries to fake it. And it’s why me and Dan could never have built Teacher Tapp the product, even though we built early versions of the app. We just don’t care that much about teachers.

So what is our passion? What lets us do a good job on things like this? And what does it have to do with competition law?

Technopanic and regulation

In 2018 when it was still a buggy early product with a CSV shared on Dropbox powering the questions, Teacher Tapp was featured in The Guardian. It was a factual and positive piece. And then there were the most recommended comments.

A clipping of a Guardian comment with the following text: Oh my, I almost spat out my coffee when I read the first paragraph. Guardian, are you for real? This app sounds like an Orwellian nightmare. After the Facebook scandal, how can you be promoting an app that wants to know even more about you? Aargh. Pay teachers more, treat them with a bit more respect, and STOP monitoring their each and every move!!!!

And another.

A clipping of a Guardian comment with the following text: This is all just so inept and batshit insane! There needs to be an app and a whole lot of time spent on data collection and analysis in order to work out why so many teachers are leaving the education systyem?! Really?!!!!! Are you JOKING?!!!!! Is the irony here not totally freaking obvious?!!! I mean, the irony here is unbelievable........ the very same system that supposedly has all the wealth of expertise about life so as to place itself in the esteemed position of imparting knowledge and wisdom to the young so that they might have the best possible start in life..... that very same system isn't even intelligent enough to be able to work out the most basic of fundamental principles about how to treat its own staff in a manner which doesn't make them want to quit!!! How completely absurd is that?!!! It hardly takes rocket appliances to figure out why so many teachers are leaving. I mean, it's not as if there hasn't been, you know, any kind of history of people walking out from shitty work situations and opportunities for understanding why sane people choose to do that! So now some apparently 'clever' people feel they need to shed some more light on the situation by gatehring detailed information in order to understand teacher patterns. What a complete farce!

Now of course I’ve picked the comments to prove my point. But of 28 comments not a single one was positive.

I’m going to make a big leap of logic here. It’s a big stretch, but I think it’s a fair one. I’d bet that most of those negative commenters would also support “breaking up big tech because they’re using their dominant positions and their mountains of data to crush all competition”.

I listen to debates about that all the time. There are reports and comment pieces and public forums. Most of the many people working in the world of thinking about such things are well paid to do so. The technopanic industry is a lucrative one. And I’d argue that it’s usually a much better bet than trying to build the alternative to the world it complains about.

Which brings me onto the comment that came closest to being positive.

A clipping of a Guardian comment with the following text: What we need is an app that persuades us to go out on strike!

Yes we do. Unions are forces for good in society. They are the necessary counterbalance to the most rampant capitalists, who are also forces for good in society. And unions do need even better ways of engaging with their members, so that workers together can protect their safety and increase their pay as they push up productivity at work.

I’m not passionate enough about trade unions to be the person who builds such an app. I just know that it can be done. And I know that Google and Facebook and Apple and Microsoft and Amazon are far less of a barrier to making it happen than they are the providers of the tools that make it possible.

But I worry that too much of the talent in our society and too much of the public and charitable money invested in this issue isn’t interested in building anything. I usually feel like it’s interested in writing long-form reports similar to the comments on the Guardian article about Teacher Tapp.

We spend more effort explaining how big tech makes it impossible to build such apps than we do trying to build them. I suppose I’m passionate about doing the opposite.


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