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@tav
Created September 30, 2010 06:05
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What would you like to do?

Abstract of the Proposed Project

The project is about the delivery of Espra -- an open source, web-based social platform that sets out to improve quality of life and create new market opportunities by helping to efficiently organise people, ideas and resources.

To this end Espra brings together innovative solutions built around Trust Maps, which will help people filter and overcome information overload, and a Reputation Economy, which will enable content creators to get rewarded for their works through aggregated micropayments.


How does this application align with the competition scope?

Espra will significantly improve people's ability to function in the digital world by tackling information overload and allowing content creators to get paid for their work. Espra fulfills parts of the Technology Strategy Board's wider Digital Britain Strategy of enabling "a sustainable marketplace for intellectual property" and helping create "economic and social benefit from increasing volumes of information".

The ability to filter information flow through Trust Maps and the use of aggregated micropayments also opens up new market opportunities that would otherwise not be possible. By nurturing an open ecosystem around these innovations, we are applying a new approach to major challenges that, if successful, will be highly disruptive.


What is the idea and its potential market impact?

As more and more people sign up to various web services, they have to deal with ever-increasing levels of information overload. Espra is a social platform that addresses this issue. It introduces a novel concept called Trust Maps which is similar to "friends" on social networking sites like Facebook. But instead of simply following people for everything that they have to say, Trust Maps lets people state what context they are following someone else for.

So, for example, if Alice does a search on an architecture related topic, then Espra will filter the available information according to who she trusts for architecture and who they trust in turn. This simple addition of context adds immense value to the wealth of digital information that is generated daily and will prove to be an invaluable tool in helping people manage their digital footprint.

Espra also addresses the issue of rewarding content creators for sharing their works on the internet by introducing a Reputation Economy. This will be done by enabling people to assign points to those whose work they find valuable -- whether that be a blog post, a retweet, a YouTube video, open source software or even someone building a school in Gambia. People will then be able, using aggregated micropayments, to do dividend-like "payouts" to everyone they have given points to.

Espra will introduce both Trust Maps and the Reputation Economy on top of a real-time messaging platform similar to Twitter. However, unlike Twitter, the underlying technology will be fully open source and we will foster the development of a vibrant ecosystem around it. And thus we intend for both Trust Maps and the Reputation Economy to become ubiquitous elements of the future internet.

By offering a more useful and open alternative to the likes of Facebook, we believe that Espra has the potential to usher in a new era in the evolution of the Web -- similar to the Web 2.0 boom from around 2004. We will capitalise on this in a manner similar to how the open source Wordpress blogging platform has been successfully commercialised as a hosted service at Wordpress.com.

There is a potential billion-dollar market opportunity in the ecosystem around Espra's open platform, e.g. emergent apps written on top of Espra, people getting paid for content creation, businesses being able to collaborate more effectively, government being able to better engage its citizenry, etc.


What do you propose to do?

The study will focus on the software implementation of Espra as described above. This will be done through a series of agile development sprints over the course of three months. These will take place in London and will bring together a highly talented team with diverse skillsets: Tav, Sean B. Palmer, James Arthur, Mamading Ceesay, Maciej Fijalkowski, Yan Minagawa, Danny Bruder and Alex Tomkins.

The sprints will be intensive and guided by the architecture and the lessons that we have learnt from developing various prototypes in the past. We will start by concurrently working on both the backend infrastructure as well as the user-facing frontend and iteratively work towards the middle, continuously refining the spec as appropriate before finishing off with a round of user testing.

A wide range of programming languages will be used -- C, Go, Java, Javascript, and Python. And existing open source software will be taken advantage of wherever appropriate, e.g. Caja, CoffeeScript, jQuery, Native Client, Node.js, Redis, Tornado, etc. We will ensure high code quality by using modern development practices such as behaviour driven development.

(It is perhaps worth noting that Google have expressed an interest in collaborating with us on researching the object capability-based security mechanism that underlies Espra. If this works out, we will invite the Google engineers to join our development sprints.)


What will you deliver?

We will deliver a fully working implementation of Espra that proves that it is technically viable and that the architecture is fit to scale. There will be a usable, public instance running at espra.com as well as an installable, open source download for Windows, Linux and OS X.

The implementation of the platform will deliver the various features described above, i.e. Trust Maps, aggregated micropayments, real-time messaging, etc. And will include some ground-breaking technical achievements:

  • A decentralised transactional datastore capable of indexing petabytes of structured data.

  • A pattern-based sensor network capable of supporting real-time searches and updates.

  • An object capability-based security framework that supports rich and composable applications.

  • An exchange mechanism based on computing resources like storage, processing and bandwidth.

  • A dynamic columns-based user interface that fits user needs better than legacy windowing systems.

Despite the underlying technological complexity, we will ensure that the user-facing elements of Espra are as easy to use as the popular web applications of today and that it works across all modern, HTML5-compliant web browsers.


Why do you need this grant?

We need the grant for the very same reasons that the early internet needed government funding. It is extremely challenging to bootstrap open ecosystems. But, as the Web has clearly demonstrated, the benefits can be significant. We have approached a number of different funding sources without much success. Bank loans have not been possible as we do not have assets to offer as collateral. And lacking a fully working product and an established user base, it is too early stage for most forms of equity investment.

Investors have also felt that the risk is too high given the complex nature of the problems we are addressing. We strongly believe that these hard problems need to be tackled -- otherwise the technical debt simply gets passed along for future generations to deal with. The open source nature of the project is also seen as not being commercially defensible. In contrast we believe that there are greater long term benefits to be had by keeping in spirit with the open-ness of the Web.

As a consequence, we have been funding the research and development of Espra through consultancy and contract work. But since we do not have substantial profits, this has been a painfully slow process. This grant can change that. By funding the development sprint, this grant will enable a highly talented team to come together and create a truly open and innovative platform-led ecosystem. Thank you!


How could you take your idea further if you received £100k?

With increased investment, we will deliver a project that is able to take on Silicon Valley giants like Facebook and Twitter. The funds will support a larger team to develop the technical platform into a marketable product and prove its commercial viability.

Espra will be optimised, well tested, documented and further developed so that it can scale to millions of users. With this in hand, we will develop a repeatable sales roadmap, launch Espra and demonstrate user adoption on a significant scale.

Special care will be given to make the user interface as simple as possible. We have already prototyped a number of novel interfaces for desktop/mobile devices. These will be fully developed and integrated so that people can better manage their digital presence and information flow.

The combination of Trust Maps, aggregated micropayments, structured data and real-time messaging will make possible a wide range of new applications. We will develop some of these apps and integrate them into Espra -- with specific focus on the ones that enable better collaboration.

And, finally, the underlying technology will be extended into a decentralised application platform so that others can leverage the platform to build their own innovative applications. An open ecosystem will be nurtured around this so as to foster a new set of market opportunities.

In short, by supporting Espra, you will be enabling the next iteration in the development of the Web.

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