Doing science the Wonga way

The model used by the payday loans company might finally make science work for everyone. Could we be about to enter the age of Wonga science?

Occasionally a corporate entity tries to get science done its way. Google, for instance, sponsors various researchers to find out whether their worthy, planet-improving idea can work. But what would we get if the payday loans company Wonga.com sponsored science?

It’s not an idle question. Just recently, up in committee room 17 of the House of Commons, Chi Onwurah, Labour’s science minister, gathered academics and asked for thoughts on the public role of science and how we should fund it. The responses weren’t terribly conclusive or enlightening. But one interesting thing came up – the origins of Wonga.

Wonga’s eye-watering prices (borrowing £400 for 28 days will cost you £117.48, for example) have been the subject of questions downstairs in the Commons and the Lords. Stella Creasy MP is trying to get the Financial Services Authority to cap the rate of interest a company can charge. She is supported in the other chamber by the future archbishop of Canterbury, who has called Wonga’s business model “morally wrong”.

Apparently the algorithm behind Wonga.com was originally developed to detect banking fraud. The subtext in Onwurah’s meeting was clear – Wonga is an evil application of perfectly good algorithms, and if someone had said those algorithms could lead to Wonga questions would have been asked of those funding their development. Especially, perhaps, if Onwurah were in charge. When Wonga ploughed £24m into Newcastle Football Club in exchange for on-shirt advertising, Onwurah, MP for Newcastle Central, expressed outrage. She called Wonga a source of “debt and misery”.

There are two reasons to take issue with this. First, many people are clearly happy to pay hundreds of pounds for a short-term loan. Wonga’s reported customer satisfaction is above Apple’s and far above that recorded by any of the high-street banks. Second, Onwurah’s remit is innovation, science and digital infrastructure and yet she slurs a company that has used science and digital infrastructure to innovate. The firm is expanding into the US and is on course to become a billion-dollar company next year.

The good news is that the government will soon have a Wonga-friendly chief scientific adviser. Mark Walport is at present the director of the Wellcome Trust, the UK’s largest scientific and medical research charity and an investor in Wonga. When Creasy challenged Walport about this, he replied that he finds Wonga “extremely engaging”, with a good business model and a willingness to listen to feedback.

This bodes extremely well for Walport’s stint as the UK’s most influential scientist. Clearly, he’s not populist, he’s not swayed by conflicts with authority and he’s not averse to a bit of level-headed thinking.

Coming round

If Onwurah comes round, she and Walport might even usher in the age of Wonga science. This would be open to no-fuss funding of projects and people that are currently considered unfundable, ending the pyramid scheme that makes life easy for established professors and near-impossible for those trying to become established. It would reward people who cross disciplines to achieve optimum productivity (one of Wonga’s co-founders, Jonty Hurwitz, trained as a mathematician and physicist and then became a software engineer and entrepreneur). Pursuing interdisciplinary research is widely known as a fast track to the funding wilderness.

Wonga science would present straight-talking science advice to government and pursue research that has no useful application in sight. It would also encourage scientists to take things we already have and find entirely new purposes for them. Most appealing, it might show us gaps in our scientific research that no one even realised were there. The Wonga model might finally make science work for everyone.

 

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Will Europe ever go to war again?

Anna Leszkiewicz
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Why doesn't falling snow show up on your phone camera?

And while we're at it, why can't you take a good picture of the moon?

If snow falls on the ground and no one sees it on Instagram, did it really happen?

The answer to that question is a firm “No”, much to the chagrin of social media users around the United Kingdom today. There will be no flurry of Likes to accompany today’s flurry of snow, as one by one we each realise it is damned impossible to take a good picture of falling snow on our phone cameras.

 

A photo posted by Mamá 2.0 (@mama2punto0) on

The question is, why?

“All photography is dependent on light irrespective of camera type,” says Matthew Hawkins, a senior lecturer in photography at The University of the Arts, London. “Snowflakes usually fall in times of low contrast and relatively low levels of light.

“This increases the duration of exposure which becomes too long to freeze the motion of an inherently translucent flake.”

So it seems that, provided you’re not trying to shoot on a Nokia 3310, it might not actually be your phone that is the problem. In recent years phone cameras have become incredibly advanced, and the World Photography Organisation even has awards for mobile phone photos.

That said, phone cameras are obviously less advanced than expensive, professional DSLRs, and a lot of digital cameras actually have a “snow mode”, designed to help with the lighting issues that occur when photographing bright, white snow. "Snow scenes generally tend to come out underexposed, so exposure compensation (adding more stops) is usually needed and the automatic settings within a phone camera don't compensate for this," says James Jones, a freelance photographer.

Lauren Winsor, a photography lecturer at Kingston University, adds: “The shutter simply isn’t quick enough to freeze the majority of falling snow. It’s therefore either lost to near invisible motion blur or rendered as inelegant white, out of focus blobs.”

Given that your iPhone is currently trying to catch up with a theatre mode, it’s no wonder that it’s not really designed for the complexities of snow.

But if – as Hawkins says – these problems occur with fancy cameras as well as your phone, then why are your snow photos so underwhelming?

The answer to the question might actually be the answer to life’s many questions: you’re just not very good.

 

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When I ask Lewis Bush, a photography lecturer (who is currently working on a project that uses satellite imagery for another perspective on the refugee crisis), why it’s so hard to capture a good picture of falling snow, he says it’s isn’t “if you know how”.

Multiple online guides have sprung up to help you get this knowledge, and Paul Moore, of iphonephotographyschool.com offers eight tips for the perfect wintery photo. “Depending on the light and the weather, snow can take on different color hues or even end up a dull gray color,” he writes, advising that it can instead be fixed in editing. A simple black and white filter or a photo editing app can change everything.

And while you’re here, what about nature’s other trickiest photography subject, the humble moon? Bush has advice for any amateur phone photographers looking to capture the big cheese. “The moon is hard, so shoot with manual exposure controls if your phone has them, you could also try using telephoto adaptors that clip on to your phone camera or even borrowing a telescope and shooting through it,” he says.

But if the snow continues to fall and you can't afford a swanky camera, what on earth should you do next?

“Shoot towards something dark,” says Bush. “White snow isn’t like to appear very well on a white background, and use a flash if it’s dark.

“Also, maybe question whether the world really needs more photographs of snow?”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.