Ronan Lyons | Personal Website
Ronan Lyons | Personal Website

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From Stalking to Talking: A Beginner's Top Ten Twitter Tips

I’ve been using Twitter for the guts of a hundred days now. In that time, I’ve added about 1 new connection per day and posted about 10 status updates a week. So I’m probably going to have to graduate from beginner to low intermediate status pretty soon, as far as Twitter is concerned. Before I do, though, I’ll write down some thoughts…

Recently, I accidentally convinced some people at work to join Twitter – no, honestly, I wasn’t trying to evangelise, it just came up in conversation and I mentioned that I found it really useful. The problem with that, though, is trying to tell someone all the interesting unexpected benefits you’ve got from it while keeping expectations in check. After all, twitter’s good but it’s not very likely change your life completely from day 1.

So, what can Twitter do? Here are my ten tips for new tweeters/twitterers/whatever you want to call yourself, from my own limited experience so far.

What and how to tweet

1. Do not use Twitter like a regular web page – it’d drive you mad having to keep a separate window open for it and pressing F5 to refresh all the time. Use something like twhirl, tweetdeck or – for Firefox fans such as myself – twitterfox. My anecdotal evidence suggests that a fair chunk of people not familiar with the web outside of Internet Explorer fall down at this hurdle. They set up an account, they follow a few people straight away, a couple of days later they realise they haven’t checked back in and they’re gone.

2. What should you tweet? My policy on tweeting is to mix it up. Sure, tweet your latest blog post if you want, but tweet interesting links you’ve found – on Twitter or more likely during your day-to-day work – or startling stats. Tweet what’s on your mind. For instance, one of my first tweets was “Is a Cadbury’s Twirl just a Flake covered a layer of chocolate? Or is it more?” – I stand by that. Also tweet questions if something’s bugging you or you want to find something out quickly.

3. Some twittiquette – retweet sparingly. Twitter’s form of the dreaded FWD:>>>> is RT (retweet). RT can be as annoying as FWD, so use sparingly. If you particularly like a link or point someone’s tweeted, you more than likely have your own point of view on it, so why not write that?

4. Don’t get into long conversations via Twitter. It’s like shouting to someone the other side of the room. A big warning sign is when 80% of your tweets look something like this – @tom Hilarious, @dick Cool! No way!, @harry really?, and so on. Although it’s unlikely that you’ll be doing that as a beginner – this is the sign of a “power Twitter user”, and unless they look really interesting, you probably won’t have cause to follow them.

To be in position to do most of the above, you’ll need an audience and to build an audience of followers, you’ll need to follow people yourself, which leads me to part deux

Who to follow

5. Find your friends, naturally enough. You’d be surprised at what they actually get to up to, particularly the links they find during their work-day.

6. Get yourself some news. With something like Twitterfox, all the hassle of having to set up Google News alerts, only to delete most, or having to repeatedly visit your favourite news sites is gone. With something like twitterfox, it’ll never be more than 5 mins before the latest headlines (CNN, theeconomist, RTE, The Irish Times, whatever you’re having yourself) pop up in the bottom right of your screen. Major plus for Twitter.

7. Follow the leader. Find someone who’s further out than you on the bleeding edge of IT. Oh sure, you could be conventional and follow Google or IBM – I do. But try and find someone who just looks like they have their finger on the pulse. I follow for example Dexin (“Interested in Entrepreneurship, Crowdsourcing, Cloud Computing and Macro Economics”) because she seems to know what she’s on about. You can also try to find a topical non-person twitterer, like Socialmedianet (“News and views from the world of social media and social software on the Internet”).

8. Stalk a celebrity. When done well, it’s a great way of finding out a little more about the person behind the celebrity. Stephen Fry is a little passe at this point, being the world’s most popular twitterer, as far as I know – he’s also quite talkative, which is a factor to bear in mind if Twitter clutter (twutter?) is an issue. John Cleese is as mad as you might expect, so you won’t always get it. On the other hand, Britney Spears is too quiet and Jamie Oliver is still very much about the cooking.

Jonathan Ross is a happy medium, in my opinion, and comes across as very human. (Not that I thought he was an alien before, but you know what I mean…) MC Hammer is on twitter too and contrary to popular belief, his follow button can be touched. I haven’t gone there yet, though.

9. Inspire yourself – follow someone interesting, just for the sake of it. It could be, for example, @thebuddha, doling out words of wisdom twice daily, or it could be The Earth Institute at Columbia or whatever. But it’s never any harm broadening your mind.

10. Lastly, talk to companies. If you follow companies, whose services you use, and tweet at them (literally @ them), they will definitely hear you – no more interminable phone calls with automatons giving you menu options! For example, I follow MyHeritage and have been able to pass on feedback and suggestions, to which they duly responded. Ditto with Hubdub. Because it’s all done in an open forum, it’s a fantastic way of getting companies to notice a suggestion and even to shame a service provider into action, if you feel so inclined.

So there you have it, some tips from someone who doesn’t know too much, for what that’s worth!

Intergenerational outsourcing and the consequences of building 10% too much: A look at Ireland’s property market in 2013

With Davy Stockbrokers predicting a 70% fall in Irish construction activity from its peak over the coming ‘medium term’ (2009-2011 or so), I though it might be timely to review some headline statistics for Ireland’s property overhang.

Recently, I’ve been peddling the idea that between 2004 and 2007, we were building twice as many homes as we needed and building twice as many for 3/4 years implies building half as many as you need for 6/8 years to return to equilibrium. Does that stack up? Or, put another way, if we start in 2002 with Census statistics on the stock of housing, use Dept of Environment statistics for the period 2002-2008 and turn Davy’s figures into ballpark estimates for 2009-2013, how bleak will things look in five years time?

The answer, much to the chagrin of those who loathe two-armed economists, seems to be that it depends – in this instance on what part of the country you’re talking about, but also about what you think is the appropriate long-term need for new houses in this country. If we take 2001 figures (technically March 2002 figures) as our ‘departure from normality’ point, how far off course are we? Between 2002 and 2008, we churned out over half a million properties, off an existing base of just 1.3 million households. Back-of-the-envelope estimates, based on an overview of economists’ figures on this topic, suggests that we should have been building perhaps 300,000 households in that same period. (That’s using an equilibrium figure of 40,000 properties a year, rising temporarily after the accession of new EU member states.) So, enough with all the stats, what’s all this for, you wonder. Well, I was hoping to use all this to answer two key questions:

  • Where suffered worst from Ireland’s properties building bonanza? Where is housing inventory lying around most?
  • How long will we have to sit around building hardly anything until we’re back to some semblance of normality in the property market?

Where did we build our extra properties? By the end of 2008, we were about 5 years ahead of schedule – i.e. we’d built 12 years supply in just 7 years. To give a regional flavour, based on insights gleaned from the property overhang per county figures I calculated in December, I split Ireland into three regions – Dublin, Connacht/Ulster and the rest of the country. (The data allow for a full county-by-county analysis, however time constraints and poor formatting in the various external sources has prevented me from threatening another heatmap!) Over the period in question (2002-2008), more houses were built in Connacht/Ulster than there were in Dublin, which has almost twice the population! As a result, in terms of years of “pre-production”, if you will, while Dublin had under 2 years excess supply by end-2008, Connacht/Ulster had almost 8 years. Once more emphasis: builders managed to produce 15 years output in Connacht/Ulster in just 7 years.

How long will we have to sit around building nothing? It’s all very well for someone to come along after the fact and say “You shouldn’t have done that”. What’s more interesting is to shed some light on where the adjustment will come first and where it will be hardest. One option would be just to close up our construction sector for a few years until inventory shifts sufficiently and prices start to rise. Practically, of course output doesn’t and shouldn’t collapse to zero and, as per Davy’s figures, will be in the range of 10,000 to 25,000 over the coming 5 years.

Therefore, I’ve assumed output of 20k in 2009 (still slowing down), 10k in 2010 (bottom of the market) and then a simplistic 5k increase in output every year after that, rising to 25k in 2013. Let’s call this the ‘post-Section 23′ scenario. This is contrasted with a ’20:20 foresight’ scenario where steady-state output in construction remains 40,000, apart from a minor blip of 35,000 in 2009 due to global economic circumstances. In both scenarios, new houses are allocated according to a region based on its Census weight – crucially, and we can relax this later, even in our post-Section 23 world, output resumes in Connacht/Ulster, not at the distorted rates we saw but in proportion to its size. The result of all this is the chart below. The figures show the excess of properties as a percentage of the total property stock in each of the three regions.

Ireland's excess properties, % of total properties, by region, 2003-2013f
Ireland's excess properties, % of total properties, by region, 2003-2013f

The results are pretty clear:

  • Even with some major internal restructuring of the construction industry (i.e. rebalancing output of houses according to a region’s weight in the economy), Connacht and Ulster will still have a significant property overhang, more than 10% by 2013 – and that itself based on a drastic 70% contraction in building activity from peak levels.
  • For most of the country – and indeed the country on average – the overhang will have halved by 2013 but will still be in the region of 5/6%.
  • In Dublin, shortages in housing may emerge as quickly as 2012.

Objections to the above might include one along the following lines: construction will not only contract 70% but also no-one will be building in Connacht/Ulster for years to come so even the rebalancing of output described above is not an accurate forecast. In that case, the overhang will just take the full 8 years from 2008. Section 23 and the property boom will have taken construction jobs from 2009-2015 and left them in 2002-2008 – a sort of integenerational outsourcing.

Another objection is that the optimistic (if 2012 is optimistic) scenario painted for Dublin hinges on that long-term need of 40,000 units a year (which translates into about 12,000 new units in Dublin annually, based on its Census weight). Significant and persistent net outward migration from Dublin from 2009 on – which incidentally is why I believe that Dublin Bus, so clearly an ‘inferior good’ in the economist’s sense of the word, is losing money when incomes fall – might mean that the demand for housing in the period 2009-2013 may fall to 20,000. Replacing 40,000 with 20,000, from 2009 on suggests that the average percentage overhang for the country stays stuck at 10% and Dublin – while still much lower – remains stuck at 3-4%.

In sum, we are where we are. We’ve more than enough houses everywhere in the country and plenty of houses in places where we won’t need them for another 10 years or so. Therefore, it would be wise for the Government to take this crisi-tunity, as Homer Simpson would say, to harness both supply and demand sides of the market.

  • On supply, it should focus the efforts of the much-trimmed residential construction industry, when that sector starts to medium-term plan in 2010/2011, on Dublin and other areas around the country most likely to show a shortage of property this side of 2015.
  • On demand, the Government should attempt to deliver balanced regional development, taking property overhang as an opportunity for affordable housing to create new centres of employment. Taking this to its most logical conclusion, firms outsource because they want to free up resources to specialize on what they’re good at. Therefore, we must adopt a mentality along the following lines: “Let’s take this opportunity to treat our property boom as intergenerational outsourcing, which has freed us up to focus on what we’re good at.” (Just don’t say all we’re good at is construction!)

The Pelosi scare-graph revisited: Private sector job losses and camel recessions

As some of you may know, Nancy Pelosi has been scaring people with graphs, recently. By her metric, namely the absolute numbers of jobs lost, the current recession is more severe – and faster – than the last couple of regressions.

Naturally, something that high profile gained a lot of attention and ultimately modification. The one people seemed to settle on was one by William Polley, who made some slight modifications and improvements. In particular, he made a greater number of comparisons all the way back to World War II, and also changing it from absolute number of jobs lost to percentage jobs lost, to give some idea of the scale of the recession.

Of course, I could hardly let a good graph pass me by. Below is a slightly different version, with three more tweaks, to tackle some remaining issues:

  • Firstly, I’ve averaged the four recessions between 1948 and 1961, calling them the “1950s recessions” in the absence of a more appropriate nickname. The reason for this is that the four recessions in that period were all remarkable similar. In particular, they all started in Autumn and ended almost two years later in Summer. They had similar length and similar severity, and there was a similar government response each time – increase the number of jobs in the public sector by about 6%.
  • Secondly, I’ve tried to further reduce the ‘clutter effect’ – or at least make the graph more intuitive – by using the colour scheme to indicate passage of time. The darker the colour, the more recent the recession.
  • Lastly, and most substantively, I’ve focussed just on private sector employment. Government employment tends to be acyclical and rising steadily (apart from the early 1980s – perhaps Reagan swinging the axe?), so the focus should be on total private sector (non-farm) employment.
% fall in US private sector employment during recessions, 1945-2009
% fall in US private sector employment during recessions, 1945-2009

It’s hopefully pretty self-explanatory – our recession looks like it’s going to be dead hard! Might as well get the discussion started with a few initial observations on the graph:

  • By this metric – arguably more down-to-earth than fuzzy GDP metrics – recessions have been getting longer, not shorter, since the war. 1950s recessions lasted two years, the last one (2000-2003) stretched to more than four years!
  • The worst point of the recession has been been getting milder and milder – at least until this recession. A good old-fashioned 1950s recession would wipe 6% or more off private sector jobs. The early 2000s recession never even reached 5%. Although it did come close twice, speaking of which…
  • Recessions are like camels. Just as camels can have one hump or more than one, it seems recessions can be Dromedary or Bactrian also and in fact are drifting towards the multi-humped latter species.

Unfortunately, we don’t have the monthly data to do the same for the 1930s recession – or indeed to collate data across a wide spectrum of countries. But, if the USA is a good bellwether for the downturn, whatever about it perhaps being more flexible in the upswing, then it seems that modern (i.e. post-1980) recessions hit a smaller number of workers for longer than their pre-1980 counterparts.

It looks like our current recession is going to mix the worst of old-time recessions, i.e. the 6%+ fall in private sector employment, with the worst of modern recessions, i.e. it’s going to last three years or more and probably come back with a vengeance a couple of times just when we think it’s getting better.

Public Sector pay in Ireland & the €50,000 question: It’s not that difficult!

Watching Monday’s Questions & Answers, I became increasingly baffled as to how poorly understood the gap between public sector and private sector pay in Ireland actually is. I conducted a mini-straw poll, through the various media of living room chat, email and Twitter. That poll made me realise that while I had been labouring under the presumption that despite all the stats we have on wages across sectors, those stats were having no impact, others were labouring under the presumption that the debate had to be kept at a general level because we had no statistics on the topic.

The guts of a decade ago, I undertook some research for Prof. Frances Ruane on the original benchmarking deal. What we found at the time was that there was no gap emerging between public and private sector wages, or if the gap was there at all, it was in favour of public servants. For those interested in more on that 2001 perspective, I’ve embedded a version from Scribd at the very bottom of the post.

Given the way this week is going, with public sector unions somewhere between agog and apoplectic at the idea of having their wages reduced, and given that no-one in public discourse (if Q&A is representative) is quoting these figures, I thought it might be no harm to see if I could do up what we in the business call “a one-slider” that might make them understand the decision a little better.

First, a general comment about public sector pay cuts. This can’t possibly be that much of a surprise to anyone in the public sector. After all, this is what they signed up to in 2001, with benchmarking. Benchmarking may have been an incredibly expensive way to do it – costing the economy €1bn+ every year and counting – but it did establish a principle in public sector wages in Ireland. That principle is that trends in public sector wages must mirror those in the private sector. It’s incredibly cheeky of those happy to have the principle applied in the good times to argue that they shouldn’t have to ‘bear the brunt’ of having the same principle applied in the bad times.

Now for the one-slider!

Graph of public and private sector wages, Ireland, 1998-2008
Graph of public and private sector wages, Ireland, 1998-2008

And in true consultant style, three key points from the above graph:

  • Lest we forget the most obvious, in every year of the series, public sector workers were paid more per year than their private sector counterparts*. 30% more on average! (There may be perfectly legitimate reasons for this, for example average experience/years worked may be higher, responsibilities may be greater… but a priori, who knows?)
  • As you can see, the gap has widened, not narrowed over the decade. In fact, in euro terms, it widened 8 years out of 10! And after the two years of greater private sector increases (prizes for eyesight if you can spot them on the graph), there were huge increases in public sector pay the following year.
  • Public sector pay is at least five years ahead of private sector pay. What public servants earned in 2003 took their private sector counterparts until 2008 to earn (in fact, they’re not even there yet, another €500 or so to go!).

With the Live Register now rocketing towards 400,000 and private sector wages now stagnant, bonuses disappearing, total earnings in the private sector are falling. Therefore, according to the principle of benchmarking, so must public sector wages. As they are paid €50,000 on average, compared to average wages of less than €38,000 in the private sector, this won’t be the biggest economic calamity to befall Ireland this year. Now, can we please incorporate this knowledge into our social dialogue?

[scribd id=11635058 key=key-2809dv8hrkl94xxmtc5r]

* Public sector includes public administration and education, but excludes health. No data there for some reason. Private sector includes all sector apart from agriculture (again no data). Some other methodological notes: I have had to assume Q4 figures for 2008 equal to Q3 in some instances or just take the average for the first three quarters, as Q4 data are not yet out. Construction figures only start in 2004, while manufacturing/industrial wages end in 2007, so I have had to use rates of change for the remaining sectors in those time periods, but the level of wages is determined by the full sample of private non-agricultural wages.

So long recession (for a day at least): Streamgraphing Ireland's Twitter-news!

Another month, another visualization method!

This time it’s Twitter StreamGraph, which tries to show a river of topics related to a keyword over time. It’s early days for this particular method, I think – having a range of options, such as number of tweets, or a particular time period, etc., would be very handy, but still a very promising tool. My first use is below…

Ireland Twitter StreamGraph
Ireland Twitter StreamGraph

The Twitter StreamGraph above shows the last 200 posts from this afternoon. Not surprisingly, given it’s our first decent snowfall in Dublin in about six or seven years (and even that one was a gone-in-a-day jobbie), very little about recession and instead lots and lots of snow!

Guess the Index: The Daft Report turns fun!

Following on from my recent post about Web2.0, hubdub and guessing Irish unemployment, I think it’s only right that I turn this future prediction market technology on myself. Well, on the Daft Report at any rate.

At this link, you’ll find a market on how much lower rents in Ireland will be in January 2009, compared to a year earlier. All you have to do is place some of your hubdub dollars (don’t worry, the whole thing is free, it’s just to measure how sure of the outcome you are) on the year-on-year rate of change, as per Daft’s very own National Rent Index.

Those who get it right will get naught but some more Hubdub dollars, but hopefully that will suffice. Well, that and the knowledge of being right, and perhaps some real dollars, in the form of a cheaper rent, if you’re a tenant bargaining with your landlord – assuming of course rents fall. (As I write this, the Hubdub market currently gives a 5% chance to rents falling less than 6% or rising, so some of that 5% includes the theoretical, at this stage, outcome that rents will go up.)

There is of course a serious side to all this (careful, blogosphere, here comes the science bit). If the market matures enough, it will be interesting to see how correct it is, compared to the actual outcome. Consistently accurate markets, across a whole range of these hubdub thingies, would say something to economists and policymakers, for example in Ireland, in light of the social partnership talks about public sector pay cuts (e.g. have public sector workers already cut their expenditure in anticipation of a cut?)

Most importantly, though, have fun! We need all the fun from markets we can get these days.

Wisdom of the crowds? Web2.0, hubdub & guessing Ireland’s unemployment

I had the rather pleasant task today of going through a range of Web 2.0 / social networking tools and establishing the potential in their application to primary research. Some key things that the new generation of web tools can give include:

  • Using something like digg or scribd to find key themes and recent developments in a topic, and – because you know who’s posted and who’s posted most – experts on a particular topic
  • Using something like basecamp or dimdim to project manage flexibly, particularly when teams are non-traditional, i.e. they are globally dispersed, working from home, volunteer-based, etc.
  • Using something like LinkedIn or indeed WordPress to access groups of experts on a particular topic and start a discussion
  • Using something like Manyeyes (which I’ve done in a few posts) or wordle (which I may have done in one too many posts last year!) to come up with new visualizations and ways of thinking about data

Many or most of these I was already somewhat familiar with. Indeed, twitter is increasingly one of my main sources for accessing news, thanks to RTE’s twitter services, and accessing expertise, as a surprising number of economists are on it. (I may also use it to keep tabs on Stephen Fry and Jonathan Ross, but that’s probably for another post!)

Anyway, what I was not aware of, or rather perhaps only vaguely aware of, was the plethora of wisdom-of-the-crowd prediction markets tools out there. By way of example, I’ve set up one at hubdub, that hopefully proves my point:

When will Ireland’s Live Register top 350,000? I hope the crowds will tell me…

The year of the renter… the Irish Times whets the appetite for next Daft report

Daft has been getting lots of exposure in the Irish Times recently, as the batch of year-end reports and prognoses for 2009 flood in. In particular, the Irish Times has begun whetting the appetite for the 2008 Year in Review Daft Rental Report. Their recent article, ‘A renter’s market‘, reviews current trends in the rental market, citing the November Daft Report, which found a fall of almost 8% in rents in 2008 up to that point. It also pointed out the single most noteworthy feature of Ireland’s rental market at the moment, the overhang in rental stock around the country, which suggests that the smart money is on the next report to show a continuing fall in rents in pretty much every part of the country.

Below is a pithy analysis in the article from a man with a growing national reputation, Stephen Kinsella:

“What’s happened is that people bought [properties] to flip,” says Dr Stephen Kinsella, of the Kemmy Business School in UL. “They weren’t selling so they put them on the rental market. So what’s been happening over the last number of months is that the supply of available high-quality, brand new housing, especially apartment housing, has gone through the roof.” On the other side of the rental equation, demand has flagged due to the exodus of migrant workers from Ireland. The ESRI expects that net outward migration will reach 50,000 in the year to April 2009, which would free up even more rental properties. “You don’t need a PhD in economics to know when the supply of something goes up, the price of it is going to go down,” says Dr Kinsella.

Earlier IT coverage of the Daft Report focussed on the ongoing debate about the true level of house price falls. On Wednesday January 14, it reported the main findings from the Year in Review report for the sales market, alongside findings from the IAVI report out the same day. In an article entitled ‘Prices of houses in Dublin fall by 16.5%‘, the paper reported:

The latest Daft.ie house report, also published yesterday, shows that asking prices for houses fell almost 15 per cent over 2008.The decline in prices, according to the property website, accelerated in the latter months of 2008 with asking prices falling 5.8 per cent in the last quarter alone. According to Daft.ie, the national average asking price fell €58,000 in 12 months to €295,000, the same level as in January 2006.

Somewhat confusingly, though, the very next day, it published an article that was not so keen on the Daft Report. (One could of course be all conspiratorial about these things, bearing in mind that the Irish Times owns daft’s rival myhome.ie, Ireland’s second largest property portal, with approximately one third of the visitors, traffic and listings of daft.ie!) Michael Grehan, MD of Sherry Fitzgerald, sought to set the record straight on the true state of the property market, in an article entitled ‘Reports do not reveal true price drop‘:

Michael Grehan, managing director of Sherry FitzGerald, says that a report this week by property website Daft.ie, which showed a 15 per cent fall in house prices last year, doesn’t tell the full story, since the research is based on asking prices rather than those actually achieved. Grehan argues that while Sherry FitzGerald’s own property indices shows an average price correction of 30 per cent, since the peak, he knows of properties that appear to have taken cuts of 40, 50 and even 60 per cent, in at least one case. The size of the drop has been confirmed by other agents who have seen prices fall through the floor as buyers bargain aggressively. “The lack of publicly available information on actual sales prices puts buyers at a disadvantage as there is often a big difference between an initial asking price and the eventual selling price,” says Grehan.

Of course, he’s dead right. The Daft Report is based on asking prices, which is why, for example, the index is called the Asking Price Index. Also, it’s nice to see what those on thepropertypin.com would call a VI (vested interest) arguing strenuously that house price falls have been up to three times as large as those reported in the statistics. What makes it all a little bit more confusing, however, is that Sherry Fitzgerald conducted their own analysis of the Irish property market in 2008 and published their findings a week earlier. And what did they conclude? According to a January 7 report in the Irish Times entitled ‘More price cuts as season starts‘:

The average price of a second-hand property in Ireland fell by 7.1 per cent during the final quarter of 2008, according to a report by the agency [Sherry Fitzgerald] earlier this week. “This brings the level of price deflation for 2008 to 18.1 per cent – the highest level of price deflation ever recorded in the Irish market,” says the company’s chief economist, Marian Finnegan.

Confused? I know I am!I think it’s probably fair to say, though, that most people would be surprised if the 3% gap between the 2008 fall in Daft’s asking prices and the 2008 fall in SF’s index of prices truly reflected how much buyers are undercutting listed prices – which I think was Mr. Grehan’s point.

The moral of the story? Probably nothing more insightful than: know your stats, what they’re telling you and what they’re not, and always keep a healthy sceptical outlook on everything you read.