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Rory Cellan-Jones

Spinvox, we stand by our story

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 29 Jul 09, 11:40 GMT

I was not intending to return to our story about Spinvox, and how its uses humans in call centres rather than computers to transcribe voicemails, unless there was a significant development. Then two things happened - first James Whatley, Spinvox's blogger-in-residence, otherwise known as Whatleydude wrote a lengthy post in which he described "a veritable maelstrom of accusations, misapprehensions and sometimes just plain lies", and promised to set the record straight. And then two new stories about Spinvox did come my way.

Whatleydude's post goes through five allegations - and dismisses each of them. I'm going to explain why we stand by our story.

1) "SpinVox uses humans to convert voicemails into text messages."

JW: No. SpinVox uses humans to step in when the automated parts of our service need help. This is not brand new information.

RC-J: Well, this is the very heart of our story. We believe - and we have seen good evidence to support this - that humans in call centres not only play a large part in transcribing voicemails, they do far more than just "step in" to help.

Former agents in Egypt have described the work, as have South African call centre workers, and as you'll see later, one customer has seen at first hand how it works. So yes, "Spinvox uses humans to convert voicemails into text messages" is entirely accurate.

2) "There is a Facebook group sharing confidential information from actual Spinvox voice messages."

JW: No. But there is a Facebook group sharing training information from fictional Spinvox voice messages.

To elaborate on this further, the Egyptian call centre in question "which used to work for Spinvox" was trialling our software as part of our constant efforts to better our service.
Funnily enough, Raya, the QC (quality control) house in question failed to meet all of the stringent standards during training and we never commenced work with them. Surprising that this same QC house is now leaking "data"? I think not.

RC-J: Spinvox told me last week - and I put it in my piece - that Raya, the Egyptian call centre in question, had never gone live, and that the pictures on the Facebook group were from a training session.

Now I've found an interesting article in a telecoms industry magazine, published in the summer of 2008. It's an interview with Tarek Kamel, Egypt's minister of communications, which includes this passage:

"What sort of companies are coming to Egypt to use the developing infrastructure? Kamel names one intriguing arrival: SpinVox, the award-winning company that is winning business with a simple offer to turn voicemails on mobiles into text messages, so that people can read them during meetings without interrupting the flow of conversation.
 
"SpinVox came to us with a request for a pilot of 50 seats. Our kids are listening to voice messages and transcribing them to text messages. It's an excellent service for those customers who don't want to listen to voicemail.
 
"We set up the pilot, and it works very well. We are ramping up to 2,000 seats in the next 18 months. We've proved the concept -- they challenged us with the price and we passed the test."

So Egypt's communications minister had no doubt what the service was about. And what did the Spinvox PR man say when the journalist who did the interview asked him about the project? Not that it was a trial which had failed to work but simply: "We have no facilities in Egypt."

3) "All Spinvox messages are listened to by human agents"

JW: No. As per fact one, Spinvox only employs agents to step in when messages need analysis and the machine gets to decide. However, the agents in question will only ever hear/see the specific parts of the messages that need work on. They never see fully automated message conversions because we don't send them on once they're complete.

RC-J: We never said "all" but "the majority". But the idea that agents only hear "specific parts" of the message always seemed far-fetched. If a message like "hey Jimmy I'm taking my car to the (indecipherable), meet me there," comes in, how's the agent going to translate "garage" if he only has "indecipherable" without the words around it?

Spinvox message received by Jason SewellNow have a look at this picture, posted on the internet by a Spinvox customer, Jason Sewell from the United States. Actually, he's a Vonage customer and signed up to the VOIP operator's "visual voicemail" service, without knowing it had anything to do with Spinvox. Then he got via e-mail the message you can see. Jason takes up the story:

"You get the audio too with this service - and that was in fact my mother-in-law calling to see how the kids were. When I saw the number in the e-mail I thought it was a scam."

He feared calling the number would rack up huge charges - but in the end a friend made the call and reported back in a strongly-worded e-mail (which Jason has forwarded to me) on the man who answered:

"The guy says he works in a call centre in Pakistan that is contracted out by Spinvox and they're all pissed [off] since they haven't been paid in two months!!"

Just how does that square with the idea that they never see full messages - or the assertion later in Mr Whatley's blog that all messages are "completely anonymised"?

Jason Sewell certainly isn't happy. "If an employee of Spinvox would go as far as to do this, maybe it's not a stretch to think they could go further - using information in voicemails to commit identity theft, for instance."

4) "How many messages are referred - in any way - to human operators during the transcription process?"

JW: Well I'll be honest with you folks, I've been wrestling away with this one most of today. I wish I could tell you, really I could. But this information is so business critical to our operation that we simply cannot share it.

I'm not kidding when I say that it would be the equivalent of Coca-Cola publishing their exact recipe up on their own blog.

RC-J: So they're still not answering that question - nor are they refuting the main charge in my story.

5) "Spinvox has broken its entry on the UK Data Protection Register (saying that does not transfer anything outside the European Economic Area)."

JW: Okay, so this one isn't easy, legal stuff never is. But it is factually incorrect. Bear with me.

SpinVox's entry on the Data Protection Register says that we do not send any personal data outside of the UK as a DATA CONTROLLER. This much is entirely accurate.

Information related to the owner of the message is defined as "personal data" and this information does indeed stay with in the European Economic Area (EEA). This is information like such as telephone number, e-mail address and so on.

DATA PROCESSING however is not covered (and is not required to be covered) under our entry in the Register. Converting voice messages is classed as "processing data".

"BUT! What about ALL that personal data in each and every voicemail?!" I hear you cry. Yes. Well.

Any messages that need analysis for further conversion are COMPLETELY anonymised before being sent out of Spinvox data centres to QC houses whether in the UK or otherwise.

RC-J: Well, neither of us is an expert on data security legislation, but I've already demonstrated that personal data (phone numbers left in voice messages for instance) is leaving Europe, in apparent contravention of Spinvox's entry on the data protection register. And when I contacted the information commissioner's office to say that Spinvox says it's processing data, not storing it outside Europe, they stuck to their original statement about contacting the firm.

Mr Whatley goes on to say that some of the world's biggest telecoms firms have been over Spinvox with a fine-tooth comb and are completely happy. But you may notice that in its home territory, this apparently shining example of British technology has failed to sign up with any of the big network operators. One of them told me, "[w]e thought there were data protection issues, and we saw no business model."

And the financial side is one area Mr Whatley does not examine. Four different companies which have dealt with Spinvox have now told me that they are owed large sums of money and are taking, or considering taking, legal action.

And then there is the staff. They were all - including James Whately - invited to take their pay for July and August in the form of share options not cash. But, by Spinvox's own admission, 50% opted to stick to cash.

I'm sorry for writing such a long post. But Mr Whatley has spent some time rubbishing our story - and his blog post merited a detailed response.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Good stuff going on here.

  • Comment number 2.

    Keep up the good work Rory. Who said investigative journalism was dead?

  • Comment number 3.

    Good for Rory. Let's have less of Twitter, more of this.

  • Comment number 4.

    This is the kind of stuff we want to read, not some rubbish about Twitter changing its homepage. Good work, Rory.

  • Comment number 5.

    Bravo Rory, good work. Well-thought out and well substantiated - you're quite right to explain your logic.

  • Comment number 6.

    Rory, this is very interesting. If I was investing in a technology company, big or small, I would want to see a working demo.

  • Comment number 7.

    Great research, Rory: this is the kind of thing that we need to see. It's content like this that will retain its value even when ordinary news can be found and spread by everyone: detailed research, analysis, informed comment, inferences drawn. Content like this is one reason I am happy to pay my licence fee and why I defend the BBC from detractors. Keep up the good work!

  • Comment number 8.

    No need to apologise Rory, good article but you don't need me to confirm that!

  • Comment number 9.

    Nice one lad! There are plenty of shysters in business out there. It's up to us to be discerning consumers, and ensure that companies who employ dishonesty as a tactic are run out of town.

  • Comment number 10.

    I'm interested to hear what people are saying about this on Twitter. Any colour?

  • Comment number 11.

    +1 For this story. -1 for any more twitter rubbish.

  • Comment number 12.

    6. At 12:48pm on 29 Jul 2009, Lyndsaygirton wrote:

    Rory, this is very interesting. If I was investing in a technology company, big or small, I would want to see a working demo.

    If you could get a tech company to demo what you wanted I'd be very interested.
    Sales staff are never engineers/programmers and always promise they'll deliver, and very rarely do.

    NHS/DWP/Probabtion service IT systems anyone?

    Maybe Spinavox too?

    Refuting blogged responses to original reports is great.
    Keep it up!
    Public Relations = organised lying.

  • Comment number 13.

    Bravo Rory. Will be very interested to see what the information commissioner's office comes up with. Even if Spinvox is found to be complying with the letter of the law it's hardly complying with its spirit - maybe a bit of secondary legislation is needed to close any loopholes.

  • Comment number 14.

    This comment shouldn't be relied upon as definitive legal opinion, but I believe the Data Protection explanation to be founded on a misunderstanding.

    If the data is "COMPLETELY anonymised" [their capitals!], it's useless because the transcribed result can't be matched up when it comes back. There must be some sort of message-ID in it. Personal data are data "which relate to a living individual who can be identified from those data and other information which is in the possession of, or is likely to come into the possession of, the data controller" (see S.1(1) of the Act). So an anonymised message which contains an identifier to link it back to explicit personal data counts as personal data.

    This personal data is transferred to the data processor, who is explicitly defined in S.70 of the Act as a recipient. If the recipient is outside the EEA, transfers outside the EEA should feature in the Register entry.

    Note that the explicit personal data to which the anonymised message is linked doesn't have to go anywhere, just be in the possession of the controller. It's the link which means the anonymised message is still personal data. And that's quite apart from what actually seems to be happening with the explicit data.

    I look forward to what the Information Commissioner has to say.

    And I echo other comments: this sort of thing -- stuff which can't become news yet -- is just what a blog is for. Carry on!

  • Comment number 15.

    Don't apologise for a long post, especially when it is so well written and detailed.
    Personally I believe that this is just one example of where people don't like to have their information used/distributed without consent. Perhaps a good anecdote for the bigger picture.
    I fully agree with all the previous posts about making a change from a particular social networking site that has been covered extensively in other blogs.

  • Comment number 16.

    They really are something, aren't they? All spin, no substance. I guess lying and fraud runs in the family.

  • Comment number 17.

    Excellent journalism - Spinvox have some issues, for sure.

  • Comment number 18.

    I have just read the patent application for the original service that has just been posted on your tech news site. How can this patent possibly have been granted???

    I get a voice message. I type it. I send it as a txt message. Doh.

    How is this different from my soon to be applied for patent for toast (since apparently you can 'patent' any old fool nonsense)... I take bread. I heat it over a flame. It turns into toast. Patent please.

  • Comment number 19.

    Interestingly, I attended an interview just over two years ago for a contract programming position at Spinvox, which I subsequently declined.

    I signed a non-disclosure agreement as part of that interview, but since it's now become public knowledge, I can confirm that the application that I was being interviewed to work on was the call centre part of the app & was described to me at the time as only passing the snippets of the conversation that the main speech-to-text engine was unable to convert.

    The App was only in the early stages when I was interviewed & I obviously don't know how it was finally implemented - but I can confirm that the initial design at least agreed with what Spinvox are saying it does now.

  • Comment number 20.

    From Peru...there are 2 centers for SpinVox here, Spanish and English, hired by their broker, Flat World Solutions, all messages are transcribed entirely by humans, I have been a transcriber and used their tensing program and all...no machine is working on that, we even have trainers and supervisors that came from UK to train us in typing and other things

  • Comment number 21.

    Rory you are totally correct, below is a section from one of Spinvox's own patent applications (Publication Number: US 2008/0049908 A1) - which can be found freely on www.google.com/patents - basically what this says is that even Spinvox admits admits that a fully automated system is almost impossible.

    [0321] 1. Given the large vocabulary and the varying audio quality, it seems impossible to achieve high enough speech recognition accuracy for fully automatic conversion for more than a tiny fraction of utterances. Reliably detecting this fraction, i.e. deciding that no human check is needed is a very interesting longer-term research problem but probably not a realistic option in the short term.

  • Comment number 22.

    I have nothing for or against Spinvox. As a complete bystander, it seems to me that Spinvox is being crucified for simply protecting its business interests by not revealing all its information.

    On the question of EU data protection laws, the company claims to have looked into the matter and has given a technical reason as to why it is, in fact, compliant. Rory then responds by saying that he's no expert, but he doesn't think they've wriggled out of it. Perhaps it might be fairer on Spinvox if he made the effort to find an expert, and see what they make of Spinvox's defence.

    On the matter of the patents, it might really help Rory to defend his story if he made an effort to understand how the patenting process actually operates. For example, the patent that he cites as having been "filed" (sic) in 2009 was actually lodged in 2003. Spinvox's defence that they have lodged a wide range of patents, and that they don't necessarily use them all in their products or services, seems entirely and utterly reasonable.

    Why is Spinvox being villified ? Is this a case of a reporter not understanding the complexities of the story, and getting it utterly wrong ? Or is this one of those "nudge-nudge" stories where there's actually incontroverible proof of misdemeanour that can't actually be published, so you have to make a fuss about the stuff around the edges ?

    Either way, it's not very seemly. Until we get a more rational and informed critique of Spinvox's behaviour, I'm punting for Spinvox to win the argument.

  • Comment number 23.

    @ unbrokenman (#22): Spinvox aren't being vilified, they say that their business works in one way but it seems that in actuality that it isn't and they're being pressed on that fact. It's rather disingenuous that they say that a computer system does all (or most) of the work if the reality is that it's mainly down to an actual person.

    I think the most telling argument is James Whatley's response to question 4. I understand the need for businesses to keep certain information confidential, but I'd like to know how letting us know the number (or percentage) of calls transferred to human operators is "business critical". Coca-Cola publishing their recipe is one thing as that is the basis for their entire company but a simple number from Spinvox wouldn't bring the company down, it's not like people are asking to see the source code to their software.

  • Comment number 24.

    When I read that not all of the message was translated by one person on the main BBC report, I started to think of Monty Python and the funniest joke in the world, which was used during the war to kill Germans, they had the translators only translate parts of the joke because if they read it all they'd die...

  • Comment number 25.


    unbrokenman

    Read the story at this link, and see if you still feel positive about Spinvox:

    http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/07/29/spinvox_mechanical_turk/

  • Comment number 26.

    Hi,

    I could have told you this 2 years ago. I hired a UK recruiter who recruited (among others in his company) for Spinvox as the primary recruitment supplier. They were tasked with recruiting most of the staff at Spinvox through their period of growth. The recruiter explained that they'd won numerous awards based on thier text-speech system, which were in fact humans doing the work - all the guys at the recruitment firm knew this - but didn't say anything as it was good business for them.

    There was talk of them opening up shop here in Australia - and the guy I hired contacted Spinvox regarding this - again we discussed the human-to-text 'scam'. I never thought of it hitting the news 2 years later. At the time I thought it was clever marketing + utilising the growing use of humans rather than computerss - Amazon's TURK is a good example of this in effect.

  • Comment number 27.

    Good work Rory. I think there is another angle to this story that merits some further discussion. According to the press this company has taken $100M in funding with a major contribution from at least one investment bank that received government assistance following the recent finacial meltdown. I would think that the only reason to make an investment as big as that in a company like this would be the technology and yet your story suggests that that technology is not at all what it was presented to be. Clearly a service like this will have scalability issues as long as humans are a component of it. Given that it would seem that an awful lot of money has been pumped into what is beginning to look like a lot of PR and not a lot else it looks like the investors either got the wool puled over their eyes or made a bad investment decision. Loop that back to the recent financial crisis and one might feel that there are also some tough questions to be asked to those pumping money into this company...

  • Comment number 28.

    I am not sure how my last post broke the rules but I will try again. The issue with Spinvox is that many millions of £s have been invested by people who thought they were buying revolutionary technology. These people were not stupid, they looked at large telecoms who apparently had carried out due diligence and then signed contracts with Spinvox. Funds should have been invested in development of the new technology, instead it has been used to pay for massive call-centers. With the money spent, the investors do not have a share in any intellectual property, nor anything else - the money has gone and there is nothing to show for it. There is a word for this behaviour, that if I use, will apparently warrant my post being rejected - any guesses what that word is?

  • Comment number 29.

    @VCAnalyst
    You have indeed brought up a very valid issue here. This may not in context of this particular issue but it would be interesting to explore that whether there are other such start up companies which were funded and have lost millions of dollars.

  • Comment number 30.

    Now THIS is a blog post! Well done Rory.

    Did you ever get to go on your guided tour of the Spinvox head-office?

  • Comment number 31.

    "[JW] I'm not kidding when I say that it would be the equivalent of Coca-Cola publishing their exact recipe up on their own blog.

    RC-J: So they're still not answering that question - nor are they refuting the main charge in my story."

    Oh, but they have answered that question, at least inadvertantly. The only possible answer that would be the equivalent of Coca-Cola publishing their recipe is "All of them" - it's the only answer to that question that would reveal anything of the technical nature of their business.

    If the answer were, say, 10% or even 50% it would be the equivalent to Coca-Cola answering a question about their drink's flavour with "We put things in it." It might cause the reader to marvel at their ability to achieve so much without human involvement, but it would give absolutely no leverage to any competitor wanting to replicate their formula.

  • Comment number 32.

    See http://delicious.com/spinvox for links to more articles and commentary around this breaking story.

  • Comment number 33.

    RC-J: So they're still not answering that question

    Hah, the BBC do that frequently! Pot, Kettle, Black.

    However, this is very interesting territory, and more blogging of this type is appreciated.

  • Comment number 34.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 35.

    Interesting story and analysis. Makes me wonder how Apple does visual voicemail on the iphone...is it a white label version of spinvox?

    How have spinvox raised so much VC money? Are they in cohoots with governments to provide them with this kind of data? The connection with Pakistan is certainly interesting.

    When is the lady who started the company going to speak?

  • Comment number 36.


    When is the lady who started the company going to speak?

    Next Tuesday, August 4th, apparently.

    Twitter traffic suggets Spinvox has invited a number of "bloggers" to its Marlow HQ that day.

    Whether the author of the article above is one of them, we don't know.

  • Comment number 37.


    More on Spinvox breaking radio silence next week..this looks like the company's invitation...

    How Does SpinVox Convert Voice to Text?

    I know you are interested in finding out more about how the SpinVox Voice Message Conversion System (VMCS) converts millions of voice messages to text, so I am pleased to invite you to our Marlow Headquarters for a technical briefing where you will see the VMCS in action and get to try it for yourself.

    Youll get the chance to speak a number of your own messages to see how they go through the automation system. Youll see how, as the messages get increasingly complex, the system might refer them to a Quality Control (QC) agent for checking or completion to ensure that they meet our quality standards.

    During the demo you can get hands-on, acting as a QC agent, so that you can see both sides of the process. You will get first-hand experience of how the application works and how quickly the messages go through.

    This is the first time that SpinVox has offered demonstrations of its VMCS and we hope youll take the time to come and see it. Well be running the introduction to VMCS and the demos on Tuesday 04 August, from 10.00-11.00am and from 11.30-12.30pm. In addition to the demonstration, there will, of course, be an opportunity to ask questions.


    The above courtesy of TechCrunch (below) which also suggests Rory Cellan Jones won't be there, beacause he's on holiday!

    http://uk.techcrunch.com/2009/07/31/im-off-to-spinvox-hq-what-should-i-ask-them/

  • Comment number 38.

    An exceptionally good piece of journalism. Twitter wasn't even mentioned, I'm impressed!

    I'm sure Spinvox are complying to the law to the letter, but they certainly aren't doing so morally. To me the message is just as personal as the phone number etc. What on earth makes them think that it is any different?

  • Comment number 39.

    If anyone questions the validity of this story, TechCrunch have written an article following the Spinvox demo:

    http://uk.techcrunch.com/2009/08/04/spinvox-secures-15m-more-but-the-demo-didnt-really-answer-the-big-questions/

    Especially interesting is part where Milo sends in his own message.

  • Comment number 40.

    _Ewan_ wrote:

    Good for Rory. Let's have less of Twitter, more of this.

    I agree with _Ewan_, we can't view Twitter during work hours, so the only access we get is through the Blogs here and HYS

  • Comment number 41.

    It is totally true and also there are people doing the voice-to-text conversion in Latin America.
    I have seen this software and all that it can do is to predict the text messages (from a database). After that, a person edits the text or sometimes listen to it all and then starts to transcribe.
    I dont know if its ilegal but at least these companies (like Vodafone) should tell the true to their customers.

  • Comment number 42.

    Rory:

    I am glad, that you and the BBC are standing by the story on
    SPINVOX....

    Thanks,
    Dennis Junior

  • Comment number 43.

    Interesting story and analysis. Makes me wonder how Apple does visual voicemail on the iphone...is it a white label version of spinvox?
    pneumonia symptoms. How have spinvox raised so much VC money? Are they in cohoots with governments to provide them with this kind of data? The connection with Pakistan is certainly interesting.

 

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