Tech Insight : Exploring E-Signatures

In this tech-insight, we look at what e-signatures are, their benefits plus some of the main e-signature providers, as well as what to consider when choosing an e-signature service.

Popularity of E-signatures 

The initial growth of e-signatures happened in the early 2000s, due to the passage of laws such as the US Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act (ESIGN) in 2000 and the European Union’s Directive 1999/93/EC on a Community framework for electronic signatures. These laws established the legal framework for the use of e-signatures, providing them with the same legal status as handwritten signatures under certain conditions.

Further Growth During COVID-19 Pandemic 

The adoption of e-signatures accelerated in recent years, fuelled by the digital transformation of businesses and the need for remote work solutions during the COVID-19 pandemic. The physical distancing measures and the shift to online operations made digital processes essential for continuity in business, legal, and educational activities.

To give an idea of the size of the growing e-signature market, in 2020, Deloitte reported estimates that the market reached between USD 2.3 and USD 2.8 billion and was projected to grow further into a USD 4.5-5 billion market by 2023 and over USD 14 billion by 2026.

The Difference Between Electronic Signatures / eSignatures 

Electronic signatures (eSignatures) and digital signatures are both methods used to sign documents electronically, but they serve different purposes and operate based on different technical frameworks.

E-signatures

An e-signature is simply a broad term referring to any electronic process that indicates acceptance of an agreement or a record. This can be as simple as typing your name into a contract online, checking a box on a web form, or using a stylus or finger to sign on a touchscreen. E-signatures are meant to replace handwritten signatures in virtually any process, thereby providing a convenient and legally recognised way to obtain consent or approval on electronic documents.

Digital Signatures 

Digital signatures, on the other hand, are a specific subset of e-signatures that use cryptographic techniques to secure and verify the identity of the signer and ensure the integrity of the signed document. A digital signature is created using a digital certificate issued by a trusted Certificate Authority (CA) and provides a higher level of security than a basic e-signature. It doesn’t just verify the identity of the signer but also ensures that the document has not been altered / tampered with after signing.

The key differences between electronic and digital signatures are:

– The level of security. Digital signatures provide a higher level of security through encryption and authentication, ensuring the integrity and non-repudiation of the document. E-signatures, while secure, do not inherently include these cryptographic measures.

– Verification. Digital signatures verify the signer’s identity through digital certificates, whereas e-signatures may not have a robust mechanism for identity verification.

– Legal and regulatory compliance. Both e-signatures and digital signatures are legally binding in many jurisdictions around the world. However, certain documents or transactions may specifically require the use of digital signatures for added security and compliance with regulatory standards.

The Benefits 

E-signatures offer a number of benefits compared to traditional paper signatures. These benefits include:

– Reduced turnaround times because arranging to physically meet up or rely on postal service is not required (thereby streamlining the process).

– Lower costs associated with paper-based transactions, i.e. no need for printing, paper, ink, postage, shipping, and storage of physical documents, or for office space dedicated to storing paper documents.

– Convenience and enhanced customer experience by facilitating easier, faster, and more secure transactions. For example, e-signatures can be obtained from anywhere, at any time, using a computer or personal mobile device thereby eliminating the need to physically meet or to scan or mail documents for a signature (significantly speeding up the process of signing agreements or forms).

– Speed. For example, documents using e-signatures can be sent, signed, and returned in minutes rather than days or weeks, reducing turnaround times for contracts, approvals, and other processes.

– Security. This is because e-signature solutions often come with security features like encryption, audit trails, and tamper-evident seals, making them more secure than paper documents, which can be easily lost, damaged, or tampered with.

– Accuracy and compliance. E-signature platforms can enforce the completion of all required fields in a document before it can be signed, reducing errors and omissions. They also help in maintaining compliance with laws and regulations by ensuring that the process of obtaining signatures follows legal requirements.

– Environmental benefits from the reduced reliance on paper, such as conserving resources and reducing the environmental impact associated with paper production, printing, and waste.

– Legality and acceptance. The adoption of laws and regulations globally means that the legal validity of e-signatures is now recognised, plus they’ve have become widely accepted as a legal means of obtaining consent or approval on documents.

– Global reach. E-signatures make it easier conduct business internationally by allowing documents to be signed across borders without the need for physical presence, overcoming geographical and time zone barriers.

– E-signature solutions also typically provide detailed audit trails, recording each step of the signing process, including who signed the document, when, and where. This enhances transparency and can be crucial for legal and compliance purposes.

Examples of e-signature Providers 

Some examples of popular e-signature providers include:

– DocuSign. The global market leader in electronic signatures (75% share), DocuSign offers a comprehensive e-signature solution that is widely used in the UK. It provides a secure and easy way to sign documents online, giving compliance with UK and EU regulations.

– Adobe Sign. Part of the Adobe Document Cloud, Adobe Sign is another popular choice for e-signatures. Being Adobe, it integrates with other Adobe products and Microsoft Office and offers e-signature services that are compliant with EU eIDAS and other regulations.

– HelloSign. A Dropbox company, HelloSign provides a simple and intuitive e-signature service and is designed for businesses of all sizes.

– Signable. This e-signature provider is tailored to meet the needs of UK businesses, offering compliance with UK and EU laws (including GDPR).

– eSign Genie is a user-friendly e-signature solution that offers features like document management, custom templates, and bulk sending. It complies with legal standards in the UK, EU, and beyond.

– PandaDoc is document automation software. As such, it offers more than just e-signatures but includes them as part of its suite of features.

– Zoho Sign (part of the Zoho suite of online productivity tools) offers secure digital signature capabilities and (of course) it integrates with other Zoho apps. It also integrates with third-party platforms.

Challenges / Issues 

There are, however, some challenges or issues with e-signature provider tools that UK businesses should be aware of before choosing a service. For example:

– Choose a provider that you know offers compliance with UK, EU (eIDAS regulation), as well as international e-signature laws to ensure legal validity.

– Make sure the service you choose has robust security that can protect against unauthorised access, tampering, and fraud, and which includes encryption and authentication methods.

– It’s easier to use e-signature tools that seamlessly integrate with existing business systems to avoid workflow disruptions.

– Make sure adequate training and support are available for employees (and clients) on the use of your chosen service.

– Take into account the ‘total’ costs (especially for SMEs), i.e. include subscriptions and potential additional fees.

– Make sure that the e-signatures provided by your chosen service are recognised and legally binding in all jurisdictions where your business operates.

– Ensure GDPR and UK data protection law compliance, focusing on personal data safeguarding.

– Assess the provider’s platform reliability, support services, and uptime guarantees.

– Choose a solution that can grow with your business (i.e. make sure it’s scalable), to accommodate increasing demands.

– Ensure the tool/service you choose offers comprehensive audit trails and secure document storage for legal and compliance purposes.

What Does This Mean For Your Business? 

In the evolving digital landscape, UK businesses are finding that adopting e-signature technology is not just an option but a necessity for staying competitive and efficient. The transition from paper-based to digital processes, accelerated by global events like the COVID-19 pandemic, has underscored the importance of e-signatures in ensuring business continuity, enhancing operational efficiency, and reducing costs. E-signatures streamline transactions, ensure security, and offer the flexibility to conduct business remotely, making them a pretty much indispensable, and helpful tool in today’s digital economy.

For UK businesses contemplating e-signature solutions, the choice of provider is crucial. It’s essential to select a service that not only complies with UK and EU laws, including the eIDAS regulation and GDPR, but also offers robust security measures to safeguard against fraud and tampering. The integration capabilities of the e-signature solution with existing business systems should also be a consideration to help minimise disruption and to enhance user adoption.

While e-signatures have many benefits, businesses should be aware of the need to navigate challenges such as legal compliance, data privacy, and the cost of implementation. These challenges, however, are surmountable with a bit of research, planning, and the selection of the right e-signature provider. The importance of e-signatures is set to grow, driven by their legal acceptance, global reach, and the continued digital transformation of industries.

Tech Insight : Cameras In Airbnb Properties – What Are The Rules?

Following the Metro recently highlighting the issue of undisclosed cameras being used by a small number of Airbnb hosts, we take a look at what the rules say, reports in the news of this happening, and what you can do to protect yourself.

Do Airbnb Hosts Have The Right To Film Guests? 

You may be surprised to know that the answer to this question is yes, hosts do have the right to install surveillance devices in certain areas of their properties (which may result in guests being filmed) but this is heavily regulated and restricted for privacy reasons.

When/Where/Why/How Is It OK For Hosts To Film Guests? 

The primary legitimate reason for hosts to install surveillance devices is for security purposes. They are not allowed to use them for any invasive or unethical purposes. Airbnb’s community standards, for example, emphasise respect for the privacy of guests and any violation of these standards can lead to the removal of the host from the platform.

Clear Disclosure 

Airbnb’s company rules say that monitoring devices (e.g. cameras), may be used, but only if they are in common spaces (such as living rooms, hallways, and kitchens) and then only if Airbnb hosts disclose them in their listings. In short, if a host has any kind of surveillance device, they must clearly mention it in their house rules or property listing so that guests are made aware of these devices before they book the property.

What About Local Laws? 

It is also the case that although disclosed cameras in common spaces on a property may be OK by the company’s rules, Airbnb hosts must also adhere to local laws and regulations regarding surveillance. This can vary widely from place to place and, in some regions, recording audio without consent is illegal, whereas video might be permissible if disclosed.

Hidden Cameras 

Even though Airbnb rules are relatively clear, there appears to be anecdotal and news evidence that some Airbnb guests have discovered undisclosed surveillance devices in areas of Airbnb properties where they should not be installed. Examples that have made the news include:

– Back in 2019, it was reported that a couple staying for one night at an Airbnb property in Garden Grove, California discovered a camera hidden in a smoke detector directly above the bed.

– In July 2023, a Texas couple were widely reported to have filed a lawsuit against an Airbnb owner, claiming he had put up ‘hidden cameras’ in the Maryland property they had rented for 2 nights in August 2022. According to the Court documents of Kayelee Gates and Christian Capraro, the couple became suspicious after Capraro discovered multiple hidden cameras disguised as smoke detectors in the bedroom and bathroom.

– Last month, a man (calling himself Ian Timbrell) alleged in a post on X that he had found a camera tucked between two sofa cushions at his Aberystwyth Airbnb.

Wouldn’t It Be Better To Disallow Any Cameras Inside An Airbnb Rental Property? 

Banning all cameras at Airbnb rental properties might initially seem like a straightforward solution to privacy concerns, yet there are important factors to consider around this. Some hosts may legitimately need to use common areas such as entrances, for security purposes (perhaps the property is in an area where crime has been a problem) and they need to deter theft and vandalism and provide evidence if a crime occurs. On the other hand, a complete ban on cameras would address the privacy concerns of guests, ensuring they feel comfortable and secure during their stay.

Airbnb’s current policy attempts to balance security and privacy by allowing cameras in certain areas while requiring full disclosure and banning them in private spaces like bedrooms and bathrooms. However, enforcing a complete ban on cameras would be very challenging, as hidden cameras are, by nature, difficult to detect and even if there was a ban, some owners may simply not comply. The Airbnb model is built on trust between hosts and guests, and clear communication and transparency about security measures, including camera usage, are crucial for maintaining this trust. While a total ban on cameras might seem like a simple solution to privacy concerns, it overlooks the legitimate security needs of hosts. A balanced approach with clear guidelines and strict enforcement might be more effective in protecting both guest privacy and host security.

How To Check 

If you’re worried about possibly being filmed/recorded by hidden and undisclosed surveillance devices in a rented Airbnb property, here are some ways you can search the property and potentially reveal such devices:

– Inspect any gadgets. Check smoke detectors or alarm clocks as they are known as places to hide cameras. Examine any other tech that seems out of place. You may also want to check the shower head.

– Search for Lenses. For example, making sure the room is dark, use a torch (such as your phone’s torch) to spot reflective camera lenses in objects like decor or appliances.

– Use phone apps like Glint Finder for Android or Hidden Camera Detector for iOS to find hidden cameras.

– Check storage areas, e.g. examine drawers, vents, and any openings in walls/ceilings.

– Check mirrors. Many people worry about the two-way mirrors with cameras behind them. Ways to check include lifting any mirrors to see the wall behind, turning off the room light and then shining a torch into the mirror to see if an area behind is visible.

– Check for infrared lights (which can be used in movement-sensitive cameras). Again, this may be spotted by by using your phone’s camera in the dark, and then looking out for any small, purple, or pink lights that may be flashing or steady.

– Scan the property’s Wi-Fi network and smart home devices for unknown devices.

– Unplug the Airbnb property’s router. Stopping the Wi-Fi at source should disable surveillance devices and may reveal whether the owner is monitoring the property, e.g. it may prompt the host to ask about the router being unplugged.

– If you’re particularly concerned, buy and bring an RF signal detector with you. Widely available online, this is a device that can find any devices emitting Bluetooth or Wi-Fi signals, e.g. wireless surveillance cameras, tracking devices and power supplies.

What Does This Mean For Your Business? 

The issue of undisclosed cameras in Airbnb properties raises important considerations for Airbnb as a company, its hosts, and travellers. For Airbnb, the challenge lies in upholding and enforcing privacy standards to maintain user trust. This could involve enhancing their policies, perhaps even investing in technology or an inspection process for better detection of undisclosed devices, and/or providing more reassuring information about the issue, thereby safeguarding guest security, ensuring host accountability, and helping to protect their brand reputation.

It should be said that most Airbnb hosts abide by the company’s rules but are caught in a delicate balancing act between providing security and respecting the privacy of their guests. Any misuse of surveillance devices can, of course, have serious legal consequences and potentially harm a host’s reputation and standing on the platform. However, even just a few stories in the news about the actions on one or two hosts can have a much wider negative effect on consumer trust in Airbnb and can be damaging for all hosts. It could even simply deter people from using the platform altogether.

For some travellers, this situation may make them feel they must proactively take the responsibility for their own privacy (which may not reflect so well on Airbnb). They may feel as though they need to be informed about their rights, familiarise themselves with detection methods and remain vigilant during their stays.

This whole scenario emphasises the need for a continuous update of policies and practices by Airbnb to keep pace with technological advancements and the varying legal frameworks in different regions. It also highlights the importance of clear communication and transparency between the company, its hosts, and guests to maintain a trustworthy and secure environment.

Tech Insight : A Dozen Ways Copilot Can Help Your Business

With Microsoft’s Copilot AI assistant now embedded within the Microsoft 365 apps and services to help users save time and increase productivity, we look at a dozen things you can do with Copilot to help your business.

Microsoft 365 Copilot 

Copilot fuses ChatGPT version 4 and Microsoft Graph. More specifically, Copilot is designed to integrate the capabilities of ChatGPT version 4 (a sophisticated language model developed by OpenAI), with the extensive data and connectivity provided by Microsoft Graph.

Microsoft Graph is an API platform that enables developers to access and integrate data and insights from various Microsoft services and applications, such as Office 365, Windows 10, and Enterprise Mobility + Security, facilitating the creation of rich, interconnected applications within the Microsoft ecosystem.

This integration allows Copilot to leverage the conversational AI capabilities of ChatGPT in conjunction with the rich data ecosystem of Microsoft 365, enhancing productivity and offering more advanced features within Microsoft’s suite of applications.

Microsoft says Copilot can increase an employee’s productivity by as much as 50 per cent and that it can unlock the other 90 per cent of things that its apps can do that most users never try.

A Dozen Ways Copilot Can Help 

With this in mind, here are a dozen ways that you can use Copilot to help with your business:

1. Automating Customer Service Responses 

Copilot can manage routine customer service queries by providing instant, accurate responses to FAQs. This helps by reducing wait times and improving customer satisfaction. It can also act as a way to identify and escalate the more complex issues to human representatives, ensuring a balance between efficiency and having a personal touch.

2. Generating Reports and Summaries 

Microsoft 365 Copilot can also analyse large sets of data to generate detailed reports and executive summaries. This can be really helpful in identifying key metrics and trends, which are essential for strategic planning and decision-making, without the need for manual data crunching. This is an important way that Copilot can save time and effort and add more transparency to a business.

3. Drafting and Editing All Manner Of Business Documents 

Copilot assists in creating professional business documents, emails, and presentations. It offers suggestions on content, structure, and style, ensuring that the documents are not only well-written but also tailored to their intended audience. Again, this can save time and improve productivity but also improve the quality of business communications.

4. Data Analysis and Insights 

By analysing complex datasets, Copilot can uncover valuable insights, helping businesses understand customer behaviour, market trends, and operational efficiency. This leads to more informed decision-making and strategy development.

5. Scheduling and Calendar Management 

It streamlines calendar management by scheduling meetings, appointments, and events based on your availability. It can also send automated reminders and updates, ensuring efficient time management and reducing scheduling conflicts.

6. Training and Educational Resources 

Copilot can create custom training materials and educational content that are specifically tailored to a company’s processes and systems. This can help in onboarding new employees more efficiently and keeping the workforce updated on new tools and practices. This can, of course, also save money on training and potentially improve the efficiency of training (because it can be more targeted and customised).

7. Automating Routine Tasks 

For tasks like data entry, inventory management, and basic accounting, Copilot can automate these processes, thereby reducing the risk of human error and allowing employees to focus on more strategic and creative tasks.

8. Language Translation and Localisation 

Microsoft Copilot can also be used to facilitate global business operations by translating documents and communications into various languages, ensuring that businesses can effectively communicate with international clients and partners.

9. Market Research and Analysis 

Copilot can scour the internet and various databases to conduct market research, analyse industry trends, and provide actionable insights, helping businesses stay ahead in their market.

10. Social Media Management 

Copilot can also help with creating, scheduling, and analysing social media posts. Copilot can also track engagement metrics, thereby helping businesses understand their audience better and refine their social media strategies.

11. Project Management Assistance  

Microsoft 365 Copilot can also help with tracking project milestones, resource allocation, and progress updates. This can ensure that projects stay on track, resources are efficiently used, and stakeholders are kept informed.

12. Legal and Compliance Documentation 

One other really helpful aspect of Copilot is that it can assist in drafting legal documents and ensure that business operations comply with relevant laws and regulations. This is crucial for mitigating legal risks and maintaining a company’s reputation.

What Does This Mean For Your Business? 

The integration of Microsoft’s Copilot AI into the Microsoft 365 suite is a significant advancement for 365 and for business technology generally. With Copilot embedded in popular 365 apps, businesses now have a powerful ‘always on’ tool at their disposal to help with productivity, efficiency, creativity, adding value, and more. As such, this integration goes beyond mere convenience, and it taps into the unrealised potential of Microsoft 365, unlocking functionalities that many users have yet to explore, i.e. it can help businesses to leverage (and get more out of) what they’re already paying for from Microsoft.

By being able to quickly and easily automate tasks, e.g. from customer service to complex data analysis, Copilot not only saves time but also enhances creativity and leaves employees free to focus on more strategic and innovative tasks, thereby elevating the quality of work and driving business growth. Also, Copilot’s intuitive, natural language capabilities, akin to those of ChatGPT version 4, make it a user-friendly assistant that can simplify complex tasks and make technology more accessible to everyone in the organisation.

Copilot, therefore, serves as a tool for upskilling employees. It exposes them to a broader range of Microsoft 365 capabilities, fostering a deeper understanding and more efficient use of the software. This aspect of Copilot is particularly valuable as it achieves upskilling organically, without the need for additional training resources. It could be said that Copilot is not just enhancing productivity, but it’s also expanding the technological proficiency of the entire workforce.

For businesses, in addition to streamlining operations, Copilot can also help deliver a competitive edge e.g., the insights gleaned from Copilot’s data analysis and market research capabilities can inform strategic decisions, offering a clearer view of market trends and customer behaviours. Its ability to handle language translations and ensure compliance with legal standards positions businesses for global reach and operational safety may also be of real use for many businesses.

Microsoft 365 Copilot, therefore, is more than an incremental update to business software, but could prove to a transformative tool that can significantly enhance how businesses operate (if businesses make sure they use it). The rewards for using what is a comprehensive, and relatively easy-to-use solution that unlocks the power of the 365 apps could be to propel your businesses into a new era of efficiency and innovation.

Tech Insight : How A Norwegian Company Is Tackling ‘AI Hallucinations’

Oslo-based startup Iris.ai has developed an AI Chat feature for its Researcher Workspace platform which it says can reduce ‘AI hallucinations’ to single-figure percentages.

What Are AI Hallucinations? 

AI hallucinations, also known as ‘adversarial examples’ or ‘AI-generated illusions,’ are where AI systems generate or disseminate information that is inaccurate, misleading, or simply false. The fact that the information appears convincing and authoritative despite lacking any factual basis means that it can create problems for companies that use the information without verifying it.

Examples 

A couple of high-profile examples of when AI hallucinations have occurred are:

– When Facebook / Meta demonstrated its Galactica LLM (designed for science researchers and students) and, when asked to draft a paper about creating avatars, the model cited a fake paper from a genuine author working on that subject.

– Back in February, when Google demonstrated its Bard chatbot in a promotional video, Bard gave incorrect information about which satellite first took pictures of a planet outside the Earth’s solar system. Although it happened before a presentation by Google, it was widely reported, resulting in Alphabet Inc losing $100 billion in market value on its shares.

Why Do AI Hallucinations Occur? 

There are a number of reasons why chatbots (e.g. ChatGPT) generate AI hallucinations, including:

– Generalisation issues. AI models generalise from their training data, and this can sometimes result in inaccuracies, such as predicting incorrect years due to over-generalisation.

– No ground truth. LLMs don’t have a set “correct” output during training, differing from supervised learning. As a result, they might produce answers that seem right but aren’t.

– Model limitations and optimisation targets. Despite advances, no model is perfect. They’re trained to predict likely next words based on statistics, not always ensuring factual accuracy. Also, there has to be a trade-off between a model’s size, the amount of data it’s been trained on, its speed, and its accuracy.

What Problems Can AI Hallucinations Cause? 

Using the information from AI hallucinations can have many negative consequences for individuals and businesses. For example:

– Reputational damage and financial consequences (as in the case of Google and Bard’s mistake in the video).

– Potential harm to individuals or businesses, e.g. through taking and using incorrect medical, business, or legal advice (although ChatGPT passed the Bar Examination and business school exams early this year).

– Legal consequences, e.g. through publishing incorrect information obtained from an AI chatbot.

– Adding to time and workloads in research, i.e. through trying to verify information.

– Hampering trust in AI and AI’s value in research. For example, an Iris.ai survey of 500 corporate R&D workers showed that although 84 per cent of workers use ChatGPT as their primary AI research support tool, only 22 per cent of them said they trust it and systems like it.

Iris.ai’s Answer 

Iris.ai has therefore attempted to address these factuality concerns by creating a new system that has an AI engine for understanding scientific text. This is because the company developed it primarily for use in its Researcher Workspace platform (to which it’s been added as a chat feature) so that its (mainly large) clients, such as the Finnish Food Authority can use it confidently in research.

Iris.ai has reported that the inclusion of the system accelerated research on a potential avian flu crisis can essentially save 75 per cent of a researcher’s time (by not having to verify whether information is correct or made up).

How Does The Iris.ai System Reduce AI Hallucinations? 

Iris.ai says its system is able to address the factuality concerns of AI using a “multi-pronged approach that intertwines technological innovation, ethical considerations, and ongoing learning.” This means using:

– Robust training data. Iris.ai says that it has meticulously curated training data from diverse, reputable sources to ensure accuracy and reduce the risk of spreading misinformation.

– Transparency and explainability. Iris.ai says using advanced NLP techniques, it can provide explainability for model outputs. Tools like the ‘Extract’ feature, for example, show confidence scores, allowing researchers to cross-check uncertain data points.

– The use of knowledge graphs. Iris.ai says it incorporates knowledge graphs from scientific texts, directing language models towards factual information and reducing the chance of hallucinations. The company says this is because this kind of guidance is more precise than merely predicting the next word based on probabilities.

Improving Factual Accuracy 

Iris.ai’s techniques for improving factual accuracy in AI outputs, therefore, hinge upon using:

– Knowledge mapping, i.e. Iris.ai maps key knowledge concepts expected in a correct answer, ensuring the AI’s response contains those facts from trustworthy sources.

– Comparison to ground truth. The AI outputs are compared to a verified “ground truth.” Using the WISDM metric, semantic similarity is assessed, including checks on topics, structure, and vital information.

– Coherence examination. Iris.ai’s new system reviews the output’s coherence, ensuring it includes relevant subjects, data, and sources pertinent to the question.

These combined techniques set a standard for factual accuracy and the company says its aim has been to create a system that generates responses that align closely with what a human expert would provide.

What Does This Mean For Your Business? 

It’s widely accepted (and publicly admitted by AI companies themselves) that AI hallucinations are an issue that can be a threat for companies (and individuals) who use the output of generative AI chatbots without verification. Giving false but convincing information highlights both one of the strengths of AI chatbots, i.e. how it’s able to present information, as well as one of its key weaknesses.

As Iris.ai’s own research shows, although most companies are now likely to be using AI chatbots in their R&D, they are aware that they may not be able to fully trust all outputs, thereby losing some of the potential time savings by having to verify as well as facing many potentially costly risks. Although Iris.ai’s new system was developed specifically for understanding scientific text with a view to including it as a useful tool for researchers who use its own site, the fact that it can reduce AI hallucinations to single-figure percentages is impressive. Its methodology may, therefore, have gone a long way toward solving one of the big drawbacks of generative AI chatbots and, if it weren’t so difficult to scale up for popular LLMs it may already have been more widely adopted.

As good as it appears to be, Iris.ai’s new system can still not solve the issue of people simply misinterpreting the results they receive.

Looking ahead, some tech commentators have suggested that methods like using coding language rather than the diverse range of data sources and collaborations with LLM-makers to build larger datasets may bring further reductions in AI hallucinations. For most businesses now, it’s a case of finding the balance of using generative AI outputs to save time and increase productivity while being aware that those results can’t always be fully trusted and conducting verification checks where appropriate and possible.

Tech Insight : No Email Backup For Microsoft 365?

In this insight, we look at what many users think to be a surprising fact in that Microsoft 365 doesn’t provide a traditional email backup solution, and we look at what businesses can do about this.

Did You Know?…. 

Contrary to popular belief, Microsoft 365 (previously known as Office 365) is not designed as a traditional “backup” solution in the way many businesses might think of backups. Most importantly, email isn’t properly “backed-up” by Microsoft. Instead, the onus is on the business-owner to find their own email backup solution. In fact, Microsoft 365’s backup and recovery default settings only really protect your data for 30-90 days on average.

So, How Does It Handle Email and Other Data? 

Although Microsoft 365 doesn’t automatically provide a traditional email backup, it does provide some email and data handling protections that can include aspects of email. For example:

– Microsoft has multiple copies of your data as part of its ‘data resilience.’  For example, if there’s an issue with one data centre or a disk fails, they can recover data from their copies. Although this can help, it’s not the same as a backup that can be used to recover from accidental deletions, malicious activity, etc.

– Microsoft 365 provides retention policies that allow you to specify how long data (like emails) are kept in user mailboxes. Even if a user deletes an email, it can, therefore, be retained in a hidden part of their mailbox for a period you specify.

– For legal purposes, it is possible to put an entire mailbox (or just specific emails) on “Litigation Hold”, which basically ensures that the emails can’t be deleted or modified. Also, eDiscovery tools / document review software can be used by legal professionals for searching across the environment for specific data, e.g. to find emails, documents CAD/CAM files, databases, image files, and more.

– Microsoft’s archiving, i.e. where older emails can be automatically moved to an archive mailbox, can be one way to help businesses ensure that critical data is retained without cluttering the primary mailbox.

– When users delete emails, they go to the ‘Deleted Items’ folder. If emails are deleted from there, they go to the ‘Recoverable Items’ folder, where they remain for another 14 days (by default, but this can be extended) and can, therefore, be recovered.

Limitations 

Although these features help with retaining some important business data and emails, they’re not a substitute for a dedicated and complete email backup solution, and they have their limitations, which are:

– They may not protect against all types of data loss, especially if data gets deleted before a retention policy is set or if the retention period expires. For example, with email archiving, when an item reaches the end of its aging period, it is automatically deleted from Microsoft 365.

– They may not facilitate easy recovery if a user accidentally (or maliciously) deletes a vast amount of critical data.

– They don’t offer a separate, offsite backup in case of catastrophic issues or targeted attacks.

Third-Party Backup Solutions

Given these limitations and given that most businesses would feel more secure knowing that they have a proper email backup solution in place (such as for the sake of business continuity and disaster recovery following a cyber-attack or other serious incident), many businesses opt for third-party backup solutions specifically designed for Microsoft 365 to provide another layer of protection.

These solutions can offer more traditional backup and valued recovery capabilities, such as ‘point-in-time restoration’.

Backup Soultions

There are many examples of third-party Office 365 and email backup solutions and for most businesses, their managed support provider is able to provide an email backup solution that meets their specific needs.

Does Google Backup Your Gmail Emails? 

As with Microsoft 365, Google provides a range of data retention and resilience features for Gmail (especially for its business-oriented services like Google Workspace) but these aren’t traditional backup solutions. The retention and resilience features Google’s Gmail does provide include:

– For data resilience, Google has multiple data copies. If one fails, another ensures data availability.

– Deleted Gmail emails stay in ‘Trash’ for 30 days, allowing user recovery.

– The ‘Google Vault for Google Workspace sets email retention rules, which can be used to preserve emails even if deleted in Gmail.

– “Google Takeout” (data export) is probably the closest thing to backup that Gmail offers its users. Takeout lets users export/download their Gmail data for offline storage. Also, the exported MBOX file can be imported into various email clients or platforms. However, this isn’t necessarily the automatic, ongoing backup solution that many businesses feel they need.

Like 365, Google Workspace offers archiving to retain critical emails beyond Gmail’s regular duration.

Limitations

As with Microsoft 365’s data retaining features, these also have their limitations, such as:

– They might not protect against all types of data loss, especially if emails are deleted before retention policies are set or if the retention period expires.

– They might not offer an easy recovery process for large-scale data losses.

– They don’t provide a separate, offsite backup.

What Can Gmail Users Do To Back Up Their Email?

In addition to simply using Google Takeout for backups, other options that Gmail users could consider for email backup include:

– Third-party backup tools, such as UpSafe and Spinbackup and others.

– Using an email client, e.g. Microsoft Outlook. For example, once set up, the client will download and store a local copy of the emails, and regularly backing up the local machine or the email client’s data will include these emails.

– Setting up email forwarding to another account, although this may be a bit rudimentary for many businesses, and it won’t back up existing emails.

– While a bit tedious, businesses could choose to manually forward important emails to another email address or save emails as PDFs.

– Google Workspace Vault can technically enable Workspace admins to set retention rules, ensuring certain emails are kept even if they’re deleted in the main Gmail interface.

What Does This Mean For Your Business? 

You may (perhaps rightly) be surprised that Microsoft 365, and Google’s Gmail don’t specifically provide email backup as a matter of course.

Considering we operate in business environment where data is now a critical asset of businesses and organisations, email is still a core business communications tool, and cybercrime such as phishing attacks, malware (ransomware) are common threats, having an effective, regular, and automatic business backup solution in place is now essential, at least for business continuity and disaster recovery. Although Microsoft and Google offer a variety of data retention features, these have clear limitations and are not really a substitute for the peace of mind and confidence of knowing that the emails that are the lifeblood of the business (and contain sensitive and important data) are being backed up regularly, securely, and reliably.

For many businesses and organisations, therefore, their IT support company (or MSP – ‘managed service provider’) is the obvious and sensible first stop for getting a reliable backup solution for their Microsoft 365 emails.

This is because their IT Support company is likely to already have a suitable solution that they know well, and have an in-depth understanding of the business’s infrastructure, requirements, and unique challenges. This means that they can tailor their backup solution to fit specific client needs, ensuring seamless integration with existing systems. Also, their first-hand knowledge of a business’s operations positions them better for rapid response and effective resolution in case of data restoration requirements or backup issues. For businesses, lowering risk by entrusting email backup to a known entity can also streamline communication and support processes, making the overall backup and recovery experience more efficient and reliable for the business.

Tech Insight : How To Make a QR Code

In this tech insight, we look at QR codes, the many different methods to generate them, the benefits of doing so, and the future for QR codes as the successor to barcodes.

What Is A QR code? 

A QR (Quick Response) code, first designed in 1994 by Japanese company ‘Denso Wave’, is a type of two-dimensional barcode. It looks like square grid made up of smaller black and white squares (modules) and typically features three larger square patterns in three of its corners, which help scanners identify and orient the code. The black and white squares within the grid encodes the data. Unlike a one-dimensional barcode, which represents data in a series of vertical lines (which are based on the dots and dashes in Morse code), a QR code stores data in both vertical and horizontal arrangements. This means that a lot more data can be encoded in a QR code than a bar code, and a QR code can contain complex information, e.g. text, URLs, and other data types.

Making A QR Code 

There are several ways you can make your own QR code. If you want to quickly share a URL of interest with others, it’s possible to make a QR code in Microsoft Edge that can be shared, and which directs them to that web page. This could be particularly useful if you want to open the same web page on a mobile device or share it with someone else without having to type or text the entire URL. Here’s how to make a QR code for a URL in Edge:

– Open Edge and go to the web page you want to make a QR code for.

– Right-click on a blank area of the web page and select ‘Create QR code for this page’ and choose either the option to ‘Copy’ (to paste and share it) or ‘Download’ (to get a png image download of the QR code).

– A QR code symbol also appears in the right-hand side of the address bar enabling you to re-use the code by clicking on it (which launches another QR code copy/download window).

Making A QR Code For A URL In Google Chrome 

To make a QR code for a URL using Google Chrome, the process is the same, but a QR code symbol doesn’t appear in the address bar.

Safari? 

For the Safari browser, a QR code can’t be generated unless a Safari QR code generator extension or an online QR code generator is used.

Online QR Code Generators 

You can also use online QR code generators. Examples include https://www.qr-code-generator.com/https://www.the-qrcode-generator.com/, and many more.

Other Options 

Other options for making a QR code include:

– Using open-source software e.g., Libre Office (free open-source software).Open the ‘Insert’ menu, hover over ‘OLE,’ click ‘QR and Barcode,’ and paste in the URL to be converted to QR code.

– Mobile apps for Android’s or iOS. These apps often have the function to generate QR codes in addition to reading them. Examples include: QR Code Reader and Scanner, QR TIGER, QR & Barcode Scanner, QR Code Reader, NeoReader, and many more.

– Web browser extensions or add-ons.

– QR Code APIs e.g., QRServer’s free API or Goqr.me’s API.

QR Codes Will Replace Bar Codes 

QR codes are already set to replace bar codes. This will of course mean lower costs for retailers, will have implications for package design (less on-packaging information but more information available to customers), and the positive environmental impact of less packaging. For retailers, this could also mean improvements to inventory management, and it is likely to give greater flexibility to manufacturers and retailers in terms of updating product information.

What Does This Mean For Your Business? 

QR codes provide businesses a streamlined and interactive method to connect with their audience, offering a bridge between the physical and digital realms. By generating and sharing QR codes for URLs, businesses can quickly direct customers to specific online content, whether it’s a promotional deal, a digital menu, or an informational page, without requiring users to manually type in web addresses. This eliminates potential errors, speeds up access, and is easy and convenient for customers in a world where most of us now use our mobiles for everything.

Having QR code generation features built into browsers, is also very convenient for users as the creation process is fast, seamless, integrated, and creates something that’s easy to share, which helps the business whose URL is being shared.  Also, not having to rely upon on external tools or platforms to generate QR codes means that businesses can instantly create, share, and update QR codes directly from their browser, thereby enhancing efficiency and ensuring they can adapt to changing digital needs swiftly.

Being able to generate and share QR codes will soon be more important than ever for businesses with the QR codes set to replace the now 50-year-old bar codes. It should be noted, however, that QR codes can send users to web pages containing malicious code and therefore care should be taken when scanning them to check for authenticity, which could be something as simple as ensuring a sticker hasn’t been put over the original code.

Tech Insight : Blockchain Bill

In this insight, we look at the introduction of the Electronic Trade Documents Act 2023 (ETDA), what it means and why it’s so significant, plus its implications.

The ETDA 

The Electronic Trade Documents Act 2023 (ETDA), which was based on a draft Bill published by the Law Commission in March 2022, came into force in UK law on 20 September. This Act allows the legal recognition of trade documents in electronic form and crucially, allows an electronic document to be used and recognised in the same way as a paper equivalent. The type of trade documents it applies to include a bill of lading (a legal document issued by a carrier, or their agent, to a shipper, acknowledging the receipt of goods for transport), a bill of exchange, a promissory note, a ship’s delivery order, a warehouse receipt, and more.

The Aims 

The aims of the ETDA, which gives the electronic equivalents of paper trade documents the same legal treatment (subject to criteria) is to:

– Help to rectify deficiencies in the treatment of electronic trade documents under English law and modernise the law to reflect and embrace the benefits of new technologies.

– Help the move towards the benefits of paperless trade and to boost the UK’s international trade.

– Help in the longer-term goal to harmonise and digitise global commerce and its underlying legal frameworks, thereby advancing legal globalisation.

– Complement the 2017 UNCITRAL Model Law on Electronic Transferable Records (MLETR). This is the legal framework for the use of electronic transferable records that are functionally equivalent to transferable documents and instruments, e.g. bills of lading or promissory notes.

Why The Reference To Blockchain In The Title (‘Blockchain Bill’)? 

The development of technologies like blockchain (i.e. an incorruptible distributed ledger) technology that allows multiple parties to transfer value and record forgery-proof records of steps in supply chains and provenance in a secure and transparent way has made trade based on electronic documents possible and attractive.

What’s The Problem With A Paper-Based Trade Document System? 

Moving goods across borders involves a wide range of different actors, e.g. transportation, insurance, finance, and logistics, all of which require (paper) documentation. For example, it’s been estimated that global container shipping generates billions of paper documents per year. A single international shipment, for example, can involve multiple documents, many of which are issued with duplicates, and, considering that two-thirds of the total value of global trade uses container ships, the volume of paper documents is immense.

The need for so much paper, therefore, can slow things down (costs and inefficiencies), creates complication, and has a negative environmental impact.

Based On Old Practices 

Also, existing laws relating to trade documents are based on centuries old merchants’ practices. One key example from this is, prior to the new ETDA, the “holder” of a document was significant because an electronic document couldn’t be “possessed” (in England and Wales), hence the reliance on a paper system. Under ETDA, an electronic document can be possessed, thereby updating the law.

How Does It Benefit Trade? 

Giving electronic equivalents of paper trade documents the same legal treatment offers multiple benefits for businesses, governments and other stakeholders involved in trade. Some of the notable benefits include:

– Efficiency and Speed. Electronic documents can be generated, sent, received, and processed much faster than their paper counterparts. This can significantly reduce the time taken for trade transactions and the associated administrative procedures.

– Cost Savings. Transitioning to electronic trade documentation can save businesses considerable amounts of money by reducing costs related to printing, storage, and transportation of paper documents. For example, the Digital Container Shipping Association (DCSA) estimates that global savings could be as much as £3bn if half of the container shipping industry adopted electronic bills of lading.

– Environmental Benefits. As mentioned above, the shift from paper to electronic documentation could reduce the environmental impact associated with paper production, printing, and disposal. Also, as highlighted by the World Economic Forum, moving to digital trade documents could reduce global logistics carbon emissions by 10 to 12 per cent.

– Accuracy and transparency. Electronic documentation systems often come with features that reduce manual data entry, thereby decreasing errors. Additionally, digital platforms can provide more transparency in the trade process with easy-to-access logs and history.

– Security and fraud reduction. Advanced digital platforms come with encryption, authentication, and other security measures that can reduce the chances of document tampering and fraud. Blockchain, for example, is ‘incorruptible.’ It’s also easier to track the origin and changes in electronic documents.

– Accessibility and storage. ETDA doesn’t exactly specify any one technology, only the criteria that a trade document must meet to qualify as an “electronic trade document” (see the act for the exact criteria). That said, electronic documents can generally be easily stored, retrieved, and accessed from anywhere with the appropriate security clearances, making it easier for businesses to manage and maintain records.

– Interoperability. Digital documents can be more easily integrated with other IT systems, such as customs and regulatory databases, enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, or financial platforms, providing more seamless trade operations.

– Flexibility and adaptability. Electronic systems can be more easily updated or modified to reflect changes in regulations, business practices, or market conditions.

– Harmonisation of standards. The adoption of electronic documents can pave the way for international standards/global standards, simplifying cross-border trade and making processes more predictable and harmonised across countries.

– Enhanced market access. For smaller enterprises that might not have the resources to deal with cumbersome paper-based processes, the digitisation of trade documentation could make it much easier to access global markets.

– Dispute resolution. Having a digital (secure) record with a clear audit trail, could make it easier to resolve disputes when discrepancies occur.

What Does This Mean For Your Business? 

The technologies exist now to enable reliable, secure, and workable systems that use digital rather than paper documents and this UK Act, in combination with other similar legal changes in other countries could help modernise and standardise global trade. Accepting digital documents as legal equivalents to their paper counterparts will bring a range of benefits to global trade including cost and time savings, greater efficiency, reduced complication (and making it easier for more businesses to get involved in international trade), environmental benefits, the advancement of standardisation of trade globally, and many more.

For the UK, not only does the Act update existing laws but could bring a significant trade boost. For example, the government estimates it could bring benefits to UK businesses (over the next 10 years) of £1.1 billion. It’s easy to see, therefore, why the introduction of EDTA is being seen by some as one of the most significant trade laws passed in over 140 years.

Tech Insight : Laundering Money Via Spotify?

In this insight, we look at how, according to an investigation by Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet (SvD), criminals may have been using Spotify to launder money since 2019.

How? 

The reported money laundering process, which was noticed by analysts from the National Operative Unit of the Swedish Police Force, involved a web of activities using a Facebook group, cryptocurrency payments and the encrypted app Telegram, the digital music streaming service Spotify, artists connected to criminal gangs and the setting up of a label.

The Process 

According to the SvD investigation, here’s an outline of how the criminal network’s money laundering process has been working:

– Bitcoin cryptocurrency is purchased (cash in hand) via a Facebook group.

– The bitcoin pays for fake streams / manipulated streams in order to make a song. For example, bots are used to simulate user behaviour by repeatedly streaming a song. The end-to-end encrypted app Telegram is used to organise the false streaming activities, e.g. using hijacked accounts, and other inauthentic methods (in addition to the bots). Possible other methods for fake streaming (some of which may be used) include click farms, VPN manipulation, algorithmic exploitation, collusive behaviour, paid services (paying others to use these methods), and more.

– The increased popularity / higher ratings of the songs as a result of the fake streams lead to more real plays / actual streams of the songs. With the artist and their labels both being linked to / owned by the criminal gangs, the laundered money then comes back as payouts via Spotify.

Only Worth It For Large Amounts 

Considering the relatively small amounts that artists receive via Spotify plays, it’s been reported that it would only have been worth operating such a process with sums exceeding several million Swedish krona (1mn SEK = approx. €84,000). This also gives an idea of how much money the criminal gangs are making before (allegedly) laundering and how much manipulation of Spotify streams may be taking place (according to reports of the SvD investigation).

How Was It Discovered? 

According to reports, the analysts at the National Operative Unit of the Swedish Police Force were actually listening to music by rappers who had published the music on Spotify since autumn 2021 in order to gather information about crimes from the lyrics. This led to the analysts noticing the unusual streaming patterns.

What Does Spotify Say? 

Spotify has acknowledged that “manipulated streams are an industry-wide challenge” but says it has not been contacted by law enforcement concerning SVD article outlining how Spotify may have been used by criminals for money laundering. Spotify also says that it hasn’t been provided with any data or “hard evidence” that its platform has been used in the way described.

How Many Fake Streams? 

Spotify says that only 1 per cent of its streams are deemed to be artificial, and its systems can detect anomalies before they reach a “significant” threshold.

However, it was recently reported (Financial Times) that there has been a suggestion by JP Morgan executives that as much as 10 per cent of all streams could be fake.

The 30-Second Track Trick 

Unfortunately for Spotify, it has also been in the news having to deny that users may have been fooling its royalty system to make money by using a ‘trick’ involving a 30-second track. It’s been alleged that users can simply repeatedly listen to their own uploaded 30-second track to make royalties. It’s been reported, for example, that analysts at JP Morgan have suggested that Spotify subscribers could make as much as £960 per a month by listening to their song on repeat, 24 hours a day.

Spotify has denied that the 30-second track money-making trick is possible on its platform saying that its royalty system doesn’t work that way.

What Does This Mean For Your Business? 

According to Spotify, the reports about how criminals may have been using its platform for money laundering have not been backed up with evidence and haven’t led to police enquiries. However, although Spotify suggests that fake streams only make up one per cent on its platform, it appears that others (JP Morgan analysts) suggest it could be at a much higher level. The story of the alleged money laundering and the 30-secong track allegations could also appear to suggest that Spotify’s systems may not be as good at spotting and preventing manipulation of the platform as the company thinks/says.

With AI now widely available, the potential for manipulation could be even greater and, no doubt, may be something that Spotify (and other platforms) are having to think about. Fake streaming can damage the music industry and distort ratings, thereby adversely affecting many artists.

It appears, however, that change is on the way, with Universal Music Group and Deezer announcing the joint launch of a music streaming model that’s designed to give more (royalty) money to the artists, which could put pressure on others like Spotify and Apple Music, to follow suit or at least re-examine how their owns systems work.

Tech Insight : How To Check Your Web Usage

In this insight, we look at the many ways to check how much bandwidth you’re using, thereby helping to avoid exceeding data caps, and providing other benefits.

Why Monitor Bandwidth? 

As we move deeper into the digital age, internet usage is skyrocketing, and with it, the necessity to manage bandwidth. For businesses, this is even more critical given the increasing reliance on cloud computing, data analytics, and online communications. One particularly good reason to monitor your business bandwidth, therefore, is to save costs by avoiding any ‘overage fees,’ especially if you’re dealing with Internet Service Providers (ISPs) that have data caps.

What Caps? 

Data caps, for example, can range from a generous 1-1.25TB to as low as 250GB for smaller providers. Exceeding them can result in higher fees or, worse, throttled internet speeds that can have a very negative effect on business operations.

More Than Just A Cost Consideration 

Monitoring bandwidth, however, may bring more benefits than just cost management. For example, a sudden surge in data consumption might indicate unauthorised usage, perhaps even a cyber-attack. Therefore, having a clear understanding of your bandwidth usage can be an invaluable tool in maintaining both the efficiency and security of your business.

Ways To Monitor Bandwidth

There are many different ways to monitor bandwidth. Some of the main ways include:

Using ISP Dashboards

This is the quickest and most straightforward way to check bandwidth usage, i.e. by logging-in to your ISP’s dashboard. Some ISPs, for example may provide a breakdown of upload and download usage, while others may only highlight the total usage. It’s worth remembering, however, that both upload and download data count toward a bandwidth cap. Although a quick method, checking the ISP dashboard to find web usage figures may have its limitations, e.g. the dashboard might not update in real-time, and it may only offer a broad overview without insights into individual device usage.

Router-Level Monitoring of Data Usage

Modern routers can now provide advanced features, including built-in bandwidth monitoring. Whether using popular mesh routers, e.g. Nest Wi-Fi or Eero, or traditional ones such as ASUS, you can see real-time data consumption right down to the device level through the control panel or associated mobile apps. This more detailed information can be very valuable for diagnosing “bandwidth vampires” i.e., devices that continue to sap data when they’re not actually in use.

Monitoring Via Hardware Firewalls

Those looking for a higher level of network management and security may consider making use of a dedicated hardware firewall. This method involves setting up a separate physical device between the modem and internal network with the benefit of getting robust monitoring capabilities, including traffic inspection and advanced security features. For users willing to roll up their sleeves, open-source projects like pfSense or OPNsense can turn an old computer into a powerful firewall and bandwidth monitor.

Network Management Software 

Companies like SolarWinds, ManageEngine, and PRTG offer robust network monitoring solutions that provide a detailed overview of bandwidth usage. These platforms generally provide real-time insights and alerts and can even offer predictive analytics to forecast future usage patterns. Ideal for businesses with complex networks, these software solutions usually require some technical expertise to set up and manage effectively.

Cloud-Based Monitoring Tools 

Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) options like Cisco Meraki offer cloud-based network monitoring. They can be particularly useful for businesses with multiple locations or remote work environments because all the data can be monitored and managed from a centralised cloud dashboard. These services often come with monthly or annual subscriptions.

SNMP (Simple Network Management Protocol) 

SNMP is a standard protocol used to collect and organise information about devices on an IP network, including bandwidth usage. It’s especially useful for large-scale or enterprises.

Packet Sniffing Tools

Packet sniffers / packet analysers (e.g. Wireshark) capture the data packets that are sent to and from a network and while primarily used for debugging network issues or monitoring for security breaches, they can also be used to analyse bandwidth consumption. These tools are generally not for the faint-hearted and are best suited for those who have a deep understanding of network protocols.

Mobile Data Monitoring Apps

While more relevant for individual users or remote workers, mobile data monitoring apps like My Data Manager or Data Usage can track how much data is being consumed on smartphones and tablets. These are useful in BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) environments where employees might use personal devices for work purposes.

Built-in Operating System Tools

Both Windows and macOS offer built-in tools to check data usage, albeit not in real-time. For example, Windows has a “Data Usage” overview available in its Settings, and macOS has a “Network” tab under “Activity Monitor.” These are fairly basic and offer limited details, but they’re relatively straightforward and easy to use for quick checks.

VPN with Bandwidth Monitoring

Some advanced Virtual Private Network (VPN) services offer built-in bandwidth monitoring features. This is particularly useful for businesses that rely on VPNs for secure data transmission.

Proxy Servers

These act as an intermediary between the user’s computer and the Internet, thereby allowing the monitoring, filtering, and control of web-based traffic. Proxy servers can provide detailed logs of internet activity, which can be analysed for bandwidth usage.

Challenges and Considerations 

It should be remembered however, that there are some challenges and disadvantages of using some of methods of bandwidth monitoring. For example:

– Limited Insights from ISP dashboards. As previously mentioned, while an ISP dashboard may be a good starting point, this method can lack the ‘granularity’ of device-level statistics, e.g. it can be a bit like knowing you’ve consumed water without knowing if it’s because of a leak or because you watered the garden.

– Update Frequency and time frames in router monitoring. Not all routers update in real-time, and some routers may not allow users to set specific time frames that align with billing cycles (which can be inconvenient), as not all routers have this flexibility.

– The costs and complexity of advanced solutions. Hardware firewalls and sophisticated router setups may offer better monitoring capabilities, but they come at a financial cost and can require a higher level of technical expertise that not everyone has. Also, using SNMP for bandwidth monitoring can be complex and usually requires specialised software to interpret the SNMP data and present it in a user-friendly format. Similarly, using packet sniffing tools to monitor bandwidth is complex, not for the faint-hearted and, so could be best suited to those who with a good understanding of network protocols.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

Monitoring bandwidth, therefore, isn’t all just about dodging extra fees, but it can also help with business sustainability and security. For example, knowing where your data is going and how much you are using can provide valuable insights into optimising business operations. Also, with today’s digital society and modern internet usage surging, bandwidth monitoring is becoming almost as fundamental to businesses as budgeting or quality control.

As shown above, there are many different ways to monitor web usage (bandwidth), with some providing much greater detail than others, but some being much more complex, costly, and requiring much more in-house expertise and tech know-how. The key for businesses, therefore, is to choose a monitoring strategy that aligns with business needs, operational capacity, and budget.

Tech Insight : Python in Excel … So What?

Following the announcement that Microsoft is releasing a public preview of Python in Excel, we look at what this will mean for Excel users and how it could help businesses.

What Is Python? 

The initial version was created in the late 1980s by Guido van Rossum, with its first official release, Python 0.9.0, coming out in February 1991. It was named after the eponymous Monty Python Show, after having been developed as a successor to the ABC language and was intended to be easy to read and allow for concise code, among other goals.

It’s regarded as a good general-purpose programming language that’s relatively easy to learn due to its simple and straightforward syntax. Python is often used in creating web applications and artificial intelligence applications, and it is the language behind platforms like Pinterest and Instagram.

Added To Excel 

Last week, Microsoft announced that is releasing a Public Preview of Python in Excel, thereby enabling the combination of Python and Excel analytics within the same workbook, with no setup required. Microsoft says: “With Python in Excel, you can type Python directly into a cell, the Python calculations run in the Microsoft Cloud, and your results are returned to the worksheet, including plots and visualisations.”  In short, this means that Excel users will be able to carry out advanced data analysis in the familiar Excel environment, by accessing Python from the Excel ribbon.

Two other key benefits of the integration highlighted by Microsoft are that it runs securely on the Microsoft Cloud, thereby keeping data private, and it is built to work with Teams. This enables colleagues to (seamlessly) interact with and refresh Python in Excel based analytics without needing to worry about installing additional tools, Python runtimes, or managing libraries and dependencies.

What Sort Of Things Can Be Done With The Excel/Python Combination?

Python’s ability to manipulate Excel tables will be of particular help to businesses that frequently work with data because it offers many practical benefits and uses. For example:

– Saving time by automating repetitive tasks in excel, e.g. formatting, or reorganising data.

– Potentially getting better data insights because Python enables the handling of large data sets and can be more efficient in processing and analysing that data.

– Saving time and doing a better job of data cleaning, e.g. Python is better at locating missing values, standardising formats, removing duplicates, and using techniques like regular expressions for pattern-based transformations.

– Improved data analysis and analytics due to the use of Python’s powerful data analysis libraries, e.g. Pandas, Matplotlib, and scikit-learn and the fact that Python in Excel leverages Anaconda (a popular enterprise repository) Distribution for Python running in Azure. This can help with complex calculations, statistical analysis, and data transformations that might be cumbersome or inefficient in Excel.

– Advanced visualisation. I.e., Python charting libraries like Matplotlib and seaborn enabling the creation of a wide variety of charts, spanning from conventional bar graphs and line plots to more specialized visualisations such as heatmaps, violin plots, and swarm plots.

– Helping to focus collaborative work efforts, e.g. where multiple people or systems are providing data in different formats or structures, Python acts as an aggregator, harmonising and consolidating diverse data sources into a single Excel sheet or structure.

– Python scripts can be scheduled to run at specified intervals, thereby making it easier to update or analyse Excel data even when you’re not around.

– Using Python as a bridge to enable Excel data to interact with other web applications, databases, or other external systems.

– Python scripts can be used to create custom functions not natively available in Excel, thereby expanding the scope of what can be done with Excel.

– Python can be used to periodically back up Excel files and even maintain versions (if needed).

– Python libraries like scikit-learn and statsmodels can be leveraged to apply popular machine learning, predictive analytics, and forecasting techniques, e.g. regression analysis, time series modelling, and more.

Examples

Some everyday examples of how using the power of Python in Excel could help businesses include:

– Making monthly sales reports better as well as faster and easier to produce. For example, if a sales manager needs to compile monthly sales reports and receives sales data from multiple regions in different Excel files, a Python script can be written to automatically consolidate all these files into a master report.

– Helping to track the expenses of a small business by using Python to automatically categorise and summarise expenses from an Excel sheet, thereby helping to track where money is being spent most frequently.

– In retail, a store manager could use a Python script to alert them when inventory for a particular item goes below a certain threshold (based on the data in the Excel inventory list).

– Financial analysts could predict future revenue or costs by using Python apply complex forecasting models on past financial data in Excel.

– In accounts, if a business needs to generate bulk invoices, Python can be used to save time by pulling data from an Excel sheet (like client details and amounts) and produce individual invoice files for each client.

– A business with critical data in Excel can have Python scripts scheduled to automatically back up these files at regular intervals, thereby ensuring data safety.

Other examples of what businesses can use Python scripts in combination with Excel include employee scheduling, e.g. generating shift schedules, quickly analysing any customer feedback collected in Excel, automatically highlighting best prices collected in Excel from different vendors, calculating commission for sales staff from figures collected in Excel, and analysing supplier delivery performance, e.g. delivery date and time records held in Excel.

What Does This Mean For Your Business? 

In short, releasing Python in Excel enables businesses (that leverage the integration) to effectively ‘supercharge’ their data processing and analysis capabilities, thereby giving them the ability to handle more complex tasks, larger data sets, and integrate with a broader range of technologies.

This could improve productivity, competitiveness, give new insights and reveal new business opportunities, save time, and produce better quality reports and visualisations which can improve transparency and business decision making. The fact(s) that Python in Excel doesn’t require any setup, integrates seamlessly with Teams, plus works securely in the cloud must surely also be attractive to businesses, many of whom now have remote and flexible working (all Teams users have access and security worries are minimised). Most businesses must, however, wait a little longer to start using the power of Python in Excel because it’s currently only available to users running Beta Channel on Windows and Microsoft 365 Insider Program members, although it will start to roll out with build 16.0.16818.20000, and then to the other platforms at a later date.