Categories
Startups Taiwan

No dream too big, or Startup Weekend Taipei 2

Despite that I haven’t started myself any project yet, I’m a big fan of startup events. Startupbus, Entrepreneurship Challenge, Startup Weekend Taipei, they were all really amazing. Because of this, normally I wouldn’t have thought twice about signing up for Startup Weekend 2. Too bad, that it wasn’t normal situation, last weekend it was in the same time as Ignite Taipei #4, which I was co-organizing (and speaking in Chinese, oh the horror!), and wasn’t sure if I can do the two things in the same time. My friend and team member from last time, Pandey, was pushing me quite a bit, and couldn’t show fear or uncertainty – signed up anyway. Thought I will figure out what to do once we get there. As with many things in life, every issue worked out, probably even better than I could have planned, and I had a great (no matter how busy) weekend.

Beginning

It started on Friday, we all been checked in to Taipei 101, through tight security, changing elevators and lots of access cards to the 77th floor to Google Taiwan. It’s a nice place, and a view to kill for, though I wonder if I could work there for a long time.

As at other such events, it started with snacks, exchanging of business cards, trying to gauge each other, who would be a good team mate, what to expect. There were some presentations, introduction, t-shirts and badges of course.

StartupWeekend Taipei 2 badge
Badge for StartupWeekend

After about 2 hours the time came for pitching. From the 60 participants I think at least 20, maybe even more were sharing their ideas. The two language (English and Chinese) made it quite rough to sometimes understand what’s going on, though the 30/90 second time limit for single/dual language pitches is pretty tight as well.

I usually decide by following my intuition, and for the first 10 or so, I haven’t heard anything that ticked my interest really. Then there was one guy who was pitching a subscription based wine discovery service (something like sending people each month some new selection, with a guide, and help them understand those better while discovering new tastes). I thought for a moment of Cerealize (that took home 1st place at this year’s StartupBus), Candy Japan (that just looks such a simple and brilliant idea, and seems to work extremely well), ShoeDazzle (subscription clothes)…… (Semi)-custom food and such service sounds just such a brilliant idea, and wine is very well suited for that. Also, recently I had more exposure to wine and wine tasting, just wanted to use this myself and would know plenty of other people who would too.

I got to say, I pretty much stopped listening to all the other pitches, already been planning this, because I felt this would so easily win the competition – and turning profit by Sunday. Went and talked to the guy, and at the idea voting stage (where people could select the most interesting pitches, so the 11 most voted one will be allowed to build a team) I was canvasing for that anyway. Should have had some feeling, when the idea guy was saying that “good that you are interested, but it’s not sure you can be on the team” – sure, why not, no problem.

In the end the idea was selected, team started to build and we had 7 people altogether. I was really psyched. Since due to Taipei 101 regulations we had to get out of the building in 1 hour, got to work right away. Got the team members emails together, set up organization doc, the others were working on the name (Advintage), once they had one they liked the Facebook page was already set up, sent email to someone I know to know lots of wine-tasting people so we could get good info about what are the good ones to choose and maybe help to write the promotion material. Seen a couple of mentors idling around, and went to talk to them a little before they they kicked us out – running the idea with them, get some feedback, get pretty much a first customer, very interesting info and some thoughts I haven’t considered before.

5 minutes before we had to get out the building, I got back to the team and started to update the idea guy:

“Hey, talked to the mentors and just a quick summary, they said (this and that)”.

“Ah, wait. Wait. Greg, we don’t have much synergy here.”

“What are you talking about?”

“While everyone was working on the things, you didn’t help just went and talked to other people before asking us that we should do that.”

“Come on, we have very short time, we had to talk to them to get feedback. You don’t need me to choose a name ….”

“I’m sorry. We don’t have much synergy here. I don’t want you on the team.”

“Okay, I understand.”

So this is the story of me being fired for the first time. It’s interesting feeling, quite illuminating as well, I haven’t felt a lot of feelings like that before. So 5 minutes after I talked to the mentors, run into them again, and when they told me a couple of things, my only answer could be – sorry, I’m not on that team anymore. “What? They fired you?” “What, they fired him, why?” “Because he did something without asking permission.” “You are probably better off.”

Thus instead of going home to work on the project more, I carried on with the preparation for Ignite the next day. Oh, I needed that.

Drimmit

In the evening I was thinking what other team to join – since I basically didn’t hear anyone else’s pitch, but there was Pandey and his group where I knew a couple of them, maybe will join that team if they want me. For a short while I was thinking of getting the teams try to woo me, but that was just silly. I realized that I was doing the “I’m here to win not to make friends” routine that I previously laughed a lot at, so instead just followed my heart and went with the team where I wanted to know the people more.

And how well that was – I learned a lot of interesting things with them that I wouldn’t have otherwise. So here it is, Drimmit:

The Drimmit team at StartupWeekend Taipei 2
Meet the Drimmit team

It’s more or less a site to collaboratively help you achieve your dreams, give advice to each other, and find and manage milestones along the way to give you a clearer path and higher probablity of succes.

It was weird not to be the tech lead, but good to let some things go. Instead of that I was trying to take care of the front-end, while half the team was working on the model and product pitch for the finals.

So, some lessons learned along the way:

  • We spent a lot of time trying to figure out the model, everything had some problem, nothing was completely logical. Pretty much more than a day went buy, where we had ideas how things would look, what’s the flow, but then had to scrap that. One cannot really develop like that.
  • I overestimated my front-end skills, though it’s usually quite tough to turn a Photoshop mock-up into a working site. Also had to get used to the terminology that when someone asked: “Do we have this page” and the team replied “It’s done!” it meant there’s a picture of it, not at all that it works.
  • For a while I was annoyed by this, but it also gave the spark: for the pitch we don’t have to code down everything, just make a show-and-click: things look like they work, but the functionality doesn’t have to be created. That means we could just scrap (or rather: abandon) the work so far (that’s about Sunday noon, for 5pm start of the finals) and concentrate on looking good. This gave us a demo better than others
  • Learned about coding some more, though I haven’t had to do much this time. One lesson is to practice a lot beforehand. Another is to prepare some tools to make development easier. And of course: do whatever it takes.
  • Because I didn’t do much and I was too cocky in the beginning, I hereby revoke my “hacker” badge until the next time I build something. No problem, I have just the project on my mind I want to do next.
  • One of the strength I seem to have is asking questions, and that way at least I could help. It can be pretty annoying, to also very useful, I could see the gaps in thinking, asking the details, figuring out where we are not good yet. Does that mean that I would be a better mentor or consultant than creator?
  • It’s fun to work with people I know and like, the team is very very important. Also important not to take anything personally, too much stress of the 54 hours drives people to the edge.
  • If I were to start a team outside of such events, I would probably do it with 2-3 people instead of 6-7, it’s easier to get on the same page. On the other hand, much fewer ideas as well, so it might not be a good call.
  • Would have to think how to replicate the pressure of a Startup Weekend outside of it. Amazing how much one can get done when he/she has to.

The guys were practicing a lot our pitch and here’s the result:

Also, there’s a rehearsal video, also good to see the progress (and the tension) people had before we went in.

The results of the finals

Advintage won – which is pretty much making me happy, because I predicted that. It helps that they had about 50x the revenue over the weekend (30 subscriptions at 2000NT) than any other team. They have won on the product, clearly. On the other hand, it also made me happy that I realized I still wouldn’t like to work for the guy. “Work for”, that was my impression, he wanted employees, instead of co-founders out of this weekend. Fair enough.

On the other hand, Drimmit came 2nd. We clearly won on presentation, the energy, the preparation, the polish (as much as you can get in a day) worked. We had the team to pull it off. I was very proud of them, and glad to help no matter how much. Also, the presentation worked since many other people keep asking whether we’ll continue working on it, because they’d like to use such a service.

It was a great time and let’s see where does it take us later. I was wrong enough times and right enough time this weekend to learn plenty.

Future

Among the most inspiring picture, though, came from another team, posting (literally) their first revenue, regardless of the value:

Another team posting 100TWD revenue at StartupWeekend Taipei
Another team posting their revenue (100TWD = 3.4USD = 2.1GBP)

Also, I’m thinking that next time I would try to pitch as well, been developing enough, now it’s time to see if I could sell my ideas to others, whether I can get them excited about something. You know, it’s not the ideator but the first follower that counts.

The rest of the pictures are in this album, click to see, CC-BY to reuse if liked.

 

Categories
Taiwan

Startup Weekend Taipei

I really should have started to write this up about two weeks ago, just after StartupWeekend Taipei really happened. Better late than never (if there was ever a good excuse then this is), so taking some time out on this typhoon weekend, here’s my experience of that good 54 hours.

Board with the StartupWeekend Taipei logo
StartupWeekend Taipei #1 logo

Start

After StartupBus and the Taiwan Enterpreneurship Challenge, I cannot deny that I have a lot of fun at these kinds of events. So I signed up for Startup Weekend Taipei quite a long time ago, especially since I had a free StartupWeekend voucher from Microsoft BizSpark.

I kept recommending the event to more and more people and it seems there were quite a few of my friends who wanted to come but couldn’t because it was all sold out. “Sold out” in this case is 150 participants. That’s probably about the same number of people as on all the Busses, though this time stationary and all in one place. I wasn’t sure what mixture of people will come, just that it will be quite different as Taiwan still seems to have less of a hacker culture.

It turned out that more than 2/3 of the people were Taiwanese and much smaller proportion of foreigners than I expected. This is great – for Taiwan. For me it was a bit of a roadblock.

25 people went up to the stage to pitch their ideas in the hope of getting a team. Of those, only 5 were in English. After the pitching everyone got their three pieces of voting post-it notes and could mark which ideas they liked the most. Based on the votes, only the most popular 12 pitches were kept and only those people could carry on their ideas. Well, since Taiwanese were really not voting for ideas pitched in English, there were in the end 2 ideas that I could join up with… This time it worked out well (oops, is this a spoiler?), but next time probably the organizers should look at this whether the procedure of setting up teams worked or not.

12 teams for 150 people also meant that every team was huge… At the Bus our team had 8 people and I felt it was pretty big. Certainly if I want to start my own company I would probably get going with less then that.

Actually, that large team count is good for getting things done once we agreed on what’s to be done, but it’s pretty bad for reaching such agreement.

Our team had 7 people: 3 coders, 1 designer, 3 marketing/business planning. One (two) sentence pitch: Restaurant search engine for menu items. Tell us what you wanna eat, we show you where are the restaurants serving that in the neighbourhood.

Whiteboard planning for FoodJing at StartupWeekend Taipei
Whiteboard planning for FoodJing interface and functionality

Simple idea, but with our team we had quite a bit of back and forth when discussing the focus of execution. I tend to get very involved once I’m sold on an idea, maybe a little bit too involved. After a bit of discussion I had the role of back-end designer, creating the infrastructure on which all of the user-facing services can be built. I choose that one, because I felt that’s the part of the architecture where I can add the most in terms of making something that other people can rely on and can build on relatively easily. I do feel that without a good back-end no amount a front-end glitter can save things….

Of course in part I chose this role because on the Bus I worked with a great team who taught me a lot about that and wanted to try myself out.

Exercise for the first evening (Friday night): A long, long discussion about a name. Next up is getting some ideas of the feature set then simplify, cut, reduce and then reduce some more. It’s great, I recommend it to everyone. I think I was a bit too combative at that time (sorry, Dobes!), but at least I realized that and tone back quite a bit. Since at 11pm they closed the venue we went home till the morning. I wanted to get something little done by that time so I can show that off for the team. Of course I slept like a log instead.

Next morning (Saturday) I woke up quite early, earlier than usually on a weekday. That’s a very good sign. At the venue they already had some breakfast prepared for everyone. I was too nervous and excited to eat in the beginning. Then when I tried my bagel an hour later, it was amazing! Run back to the table to get another one, but obviously everyone is enjoyed them a lot and were less nervous. All of them were grabbed up.

Filled table with good breakfast and drinks
Breakfast time at StartupWeekend, these were totally yummy

After some more discussion we got working on an actual thing. The technology used:

  • Bottle, a Python micro-framework, it’s a single file. I like it a lot, have to check it out more later, especially because there are a swarm of Python micro-frameworks so good to know the strength and weaknesses of each.
  • MongoDB, through MongoLab, wanted to use for our database and geolocation “nearest place” lookup, but run into some weird Unicode bugs that I couldn’t solve in about an hour. Scratch that, will check it when there’s time
  • Google AppEngine, hosting and database. Perfect for this kind of thing. Had some problem with data export and import (“list” datatypes are not imported back correctly) so I wrote some custom remote imports and all fine at this level. Oh, and Geomodel, that’s useful.
  • lots and lots of Javascript (jQuery, Mustache, something for the instant search,…) for the front-end. That wasn’t me, so not exactly sure what else was going on there. I was checking with the front-end people only as much as it affected the schema of the API response.
Most of the day was spent on setting up an API, working out data lookup with the chosen database and structure, making a data input interface, some helper pages, and fixing a lot of bugs. Saturday evening we had basically everything down conceptually that we needed to have working. Going home at night again was a bit of bug fixing (let’s call it The Time of Duh).

Home stretch

Sunday morning getting up pretty early again, I love this kind of inspired work when I just cannot stop myself. All the way to the venue I was thinking how to use this experience to improve my day job (though it is pretty inspired already, so I guess I’m lucky).

Most of the day was spent by fixing more and more bugs, getting the front-end right (not me, fortunately, I have no real sense of design), getting some real data, real restaurants and menus into the database, figuring out and polishing the pitch, working on the feedback from the surveys our marketing people were doing since Friday evening, do some Facebook page based hyping….. This sort of StartupWeekend stuff.

FoodJing team working
FoodJing team working last minute

I was hoping that we could get an Android app in the end as well, but the person who was working on that I felt over-complicated the thing. Yeah, because I don’t know how much the others must have thought that I’m over-complicating my job… Anyway, I haven’t been writing Android code since the Bus, but actually in about 2.5 hours there it was, an map interface showing real data from our real database. Slap on a search bar and you are golden. There wasn’t any time for finishing that up, but still I was satisfied – it was possible because of a good back-end. (okay, enough of this patting myself on the back, dude)

Then it was finally time to pitch. The panel of judges was impressive. Real investors and business people from Taiwan, US and China, about a dozen of them, maybe more. All very experienced people.

Pandey is introducing FoodJing
FoodJing team pitching for Judges at StartupWeekend

Our presentation was quite good, because the team really prepared for the questions, really answered the concerns an investor would have and covered all our bases. Many of the other presentations were more emphasizing “fun”, had “pie in the sky” models, or had something that some of the judges already gave them feedback in the development phase and they didn’t fix it. It’s probably mostly down to experience. I haven’t pitched before, so I guess I’m not the most reliable source of useful information about this.

Anyway, the punchline: we got first prize.

Foodjing team posing for photo after their win
A winning team and cheque

Of course it feels pretty good. Some non-monetary things (mostly services by the sponsors), but there was a last minute donation of NT$60.000 (about US$2000) from the judges. That comes handy, my share will run that server I’m renting and pay for some domain names for future projects….

Postscript

The event has been covered on TechOrange and Penn-Olson So two people from the team will actually continue Foodjing. They are based in a different city, and there are some other, administrative issues why I wouldn’t be able to take part in that, but it’s all fine. When they get it done, I’m sure I’ll be an user. And I have plenty of lessons to take home:

  • I really can get excited about a lot of different ideas. Most ideas do have a useful core that can be developed, so on an event like this, the idea that one chooses almost makes no difference. Choose the team instead of the pitch.
  • One weekend is perfectly fine to get something done. In the end we had a working (albeit ugly) prototype. If it was done now, can be done any time. Got to use my weekends better.
  • Talk more to people who can and willing to help. Had a lot of mentors who had great feedback on everything.
  • This is not a hackathon. I took it as it was one, and my goal was getting something working. Talking to some of the organizers it took me by surprise that this is really business and by real I mean real. That these things we are making are as real as it gets. I was just thinking in terms of fun, have to take things more seriously, but without losing the ability of having a good time.
  • This time we succeeded. This cannot make me risk-averse that I don’t try anything unless I’m sure to win, cannot go to the next StartupWeekend with the mindset that I have to win again.
  • There will always be more ideas. For every one of them that fails, or succeeds but goes on without me, there will be 10 more that can be taken up. So where’s my next 10?

All in all, it was a great time and looking forward to the next event like this.

Categories
Taiwan

Entrepreneurship Challenge

Since my first (crazy) swing at anything business I consider myself “infected”. It seems like that is only a matter of time I start my own venture, for better or worse. It is just too much fun and to difficult to stay out of it.

Challenge

In line with that attitude, now I notice all kinds of related events, and fortunately some of them are in the neighbourhood. So, last Sunday found me at an entrepreneurship challenge – a business plan competition. It was organized by a local startup, Enspyre. It’s founder is a serial entrepreneur who started at the age of 15. The company itself also runs an internship program to find interesting/creative people, and I have no doubt that the event was aimed inspiring young people to start something new – which in turn would boost their own business. I say, double-clever!

The audience was quite mixed, of the 25-30 participants more than half was Taiwanese, mostly students in their sophomore and senior years. The rest of it were strange foreigners (your’s truly is no exception), from Indian software engineer to Filipino Business majors and American expats. The day was supposed to be learning by doing. First, some current entrepreneurs and VCs present their take on what is a business idea and how a business plan and a pitch comes out of it. Then, in the space of a couple of hours, people would form more-or-less random groups, come up with ideas, refine them, do some numbers of how much capital the idea would need, prepare a pitch, deliver it – and see how it flies with the real VC judges. Most of the people did each and every step of this process for the very first time. Sounds intense? It was and also incredibly stimulating.

Entrepreneurship Challenge
Entrepreneurship Challenge, "Double Dream" pitching

Experience

In the initial “name card exchange” phase I was really slow – or at least slower then the rest of the people. I did want to know a little bit about my potential team mates, so ended up talking more to them than the other (I guess 5 sentences instead of 1). This made me in the end one of the last person to choose a team. That’s not a problem, I like random, usually works out brilliantly.

Out of the 5 members, our team had 4 Taiwanese students (2 business, 1 psychology, 1 medical science) and me. The language posed a little bit of difficulty, but I’d say we worked around it pretty well (I came a long way in terms of patience since I started learning Chinese as well). It was pretty amazing to work with them, especially because we all didn’t know each other, and that I could resist pushing my own things.

Some lessons learned:

  • The original business ideas were pretty bad. Many of the better ones were maybe a bit too conventional. On the other hand, when we revisited them, each and every was brainstormed into something I could feel excited about and would be totally happy to start working on. It was absolutely awesome to hear and discuss their ideas, to live through the process. Later talking to some other groups, their ideas just grew but none of them changed substantially upon review. Sign that we had a naturally agile team?
  • The language barrier is pretty big at the moment. Once one gets beyond that, by either having more patience, communicating even a tiny bit in their native language, or letting them discuss things between themselves for a whole, creativity really shines. There’s a lot of potential in this country. (Not that I didn’t know that earlier:)
  • Feedback from VCs, even – and maybe especially – before pitching is invaluable. That is, if I can say my question clearly and concisely enough. And that gave me a duh moment: of course they want everyone to succeed. If your idea/pitch is boring, they are going to waste the time. If there are few creative people then they will have fewer investment opportunities. So it is their very on selfish interest to do everything for you to succeed. Don’t abuse it (i.e. make it more trouble for them to help then the potential reward) and you have the best teachers.
  • It’s good to take the back seat sometimes. I didn’t push that our group would develop one idea originating from me, but one that more people in the team liked. I had advantage in the language front so pitching wouldn’t have thought me much, I insisted that the girl (Ping) who came up with our original idea would do the pitch – regardless of her English. She protested first but in the end I’m sure she liked it. This way she had some awesome experience and I could also see (ie. introspect) how do I listen e.g. to a pitch – even our own. I’m sad to say, that I’m a terrible listener. Got to fix that, and glad I had a chance to realize it.
  • As we were told multiple times during the day, the team is more important than the idea. After working together for a few hours I can certainly see how that comes into play very-very quickly. The business ideas I had these days lack any kind of consideration who would I do them together with – really should think about who else is in my social circle who I should consider because no matter how idealistic I am, I won’t make it completely on my own.

Guess these are just part of what I have realized, the rest of it will probably pop up every now and again in the coming weeks and months.

And now for the punchline: out of the 6 teams we took home the first prize. We came up with an idea that could impress other people who are doing this for a long time (and one of whom were telling us how the salesgirls pamper you much better when buying an Armani suit than at any other boutique – a lifestyle clearly out of my league). Their feedback was that out of the 6 pitches, ours was the one that could be done realistically, on a sane budget, with sane assumptions and might just work! It is an interesting feeling. I want to keep this and continue growing on it. Already started: my part of the bounty for winning went for recovering the entrance fee and “investing” in more resources for my journey (“Technology Ventures”).

Categories
Taiwan

Igniting Taipei

A few weeks ago with a couple of friends we started to organize the first Ignite Taipei. There’s still 5 weeks and a bit to go, but it has already been a fun experience. In many ways, starting a community feels very similar to how doing a startup would feel (I imagine). No surprise there, the startups I would want to create would want to have a great community. :)

So far it is mostly about choosing the place, the time, starting to invite people, keeping in touch with them, building involvement by others and keeping those “fans”. It’s shaping up nicely, but there’s a lot more to go, we are not ready yet.

Another connection I found with doing an business: the best way to build up one’s own enthusiasm is to be as closely involved as possible. I keep watching Ignite videos on YouTube and sharing them. Writing a blog about what’s going on. Talking to people about it and see what they are interested in. Since at the actual event I think I will be managing the technical issues, there’s one thing I haven’t thought about before: what kind of talk would I give? How would I use my 5 minutes / 20 slides to have an impact? Unless I know that, I cannot really recruit speakers well, cannot help them effectively and would miss out on the core of the things. Also, it does help to exercise my idea muscles [1].

Ignite talk brainstorming
What _else_ to talk about?

Here’s the copy of the brainstorming I had today while I was waiting for my lunch:

  • 30 day challenge: take different bus route I haven’t taken before
  • 100 uses of measuring time
  • Hungarian for dummies
  • Comparative tea-ology
  • Feynman’s spaghetti-braking experiment
  • “How to measure the high of the lighthouse with a barometer”
  • Camino de Santiago
  • Organizing Ignite
  • Geocaching
  • Version control systems for fun and profit
  • Rejection Therapy
  • Startupbus
  • Everyday physics
  • A very short introduction to <insert author’s name here> (e.g. Palahniuk, Vonnegut, Beckett)
  • Kitchen in a pot: the electric rice cooker
  • Long distance travelers of ancient times
  • 100 uses of a wiki
  • Open-source hardware
  • Movie stars’ movies before they became really famous
  • All those different ways of brewing coffee

These I think fall into two categories: things I know a little about, and things I know too little about but would use Ignite as an excuse to learn more. Actually, since I wrote up this list more ideas keep flowing in and I think I will have to prepare some of these, even without a plan to show them to anyone: why would one need an excuse to do something awesome?

Any more ideas to talk about?

[1] “Idea muscles” come from James Altucher, one of my favorite blogger/writer lately. It is the habit of being creative, or by his word:

Every day I write down ideas. I write down so many ideas that it hurts my head to come up with one more. Then I try to write down five more.

I’m not that good at this just yet. The list above is as long as it is because that’s where my page got full. Not as if there are no 97 other, empty pages in my notebook… Maybe I’m too pain averse, but got to overcome that. I actually long for the feeling of doing as many ideas that it hurts thinking more…

Categories
Programming Taiwan

Taiwanese fuel subsidy and the Global Price API

I might have gone a bit overboard with this. Again. It all started when I was reading how the Taiwanese government is planning to implement a fuel subsidy. It bothered me because:

  1. I’m not a big fan of subsidies, since then people cannot make decisions based on the real cost of things
  2. Subsidy comes out of someone’s pocket anyway, so ultimately everyone does pay for it
  3. Looking at the governing party‘s track record and the nearing elections (<1 year), this is likely to be politically motivated
  4. Fuel is pretty cheap compared to other places already, so it must be already heavily subsidized.

The points 1, 2 and 3 are opinions and generalizations. I had to realize that point 4 I just thrown in there without knowing whether it is really true – I just believed it is. Now here’s a good example for [Citation needed].

XKCD: wikipedia protester
XKCD: Wikipedia protester

Filling in the blanks

Yeah, what do I really know? I lived in Hungary and Britain before, and I remember there fuel was more expensive then in Taiwan. Also, it’s open knowledge that the US is pretty cheap, compared to most of the world, that is… But are there any patterns in the price, and what would I expect Taiwan’s level to be?

I was checking around for a while, fishing for the right keywords for the search (“fuel” / “petrol” / “gas”, depending where one’s from, as a starter). Found a couple of sites but they were mostly looking at price comparisons within a country (like Petrolprices for UK) or within a region (like AMZS for Europe, works weird – no real static link, click the UK flag then “fuel prices” in the menu on the left). After a while, however, I did come across a German organization, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) which in fact had a study about international fuel prices. Go ahead and check the 2009 version, it is very interesting to see all that data and some analysis as well. Historical trends, relative prices, some case studies too. I would have loved to see more analysis, but maybe next time, when I’ll be in the in a position to commission such research. :)

Anyway, looking at the Taiwanese data in from 2009, diesel is slightly subsidized while gasoline is, which means that they are somewhat – but not too much – below and above the US price, respectively. In the ranking, Taiwan is very much on the cheap end.

While looking around a bit more on their site, they have a Data preview for 2010/2011 as well. The more recent is the data the better. Took a look at that too. Now Taiwan is a bit above of the US price with both types of fuel, but still on the cheap end. All their data was in a picture, though, that’s not very handy… So did a little data entry, resulting in this datafile.

I was also thinking, whether the economy affects the prices, and if does then how? Wikipedia first for GDP/capita for all the countries of the world, but they were taking the data from the International Monetary Fund, so let’s go to the source. I checked out their data export tool and there were quite a few more fields to choose from. I went with GDP per capita, Implied purchasing power parity, Value oil exports, Value of oil imports (these last two are good catch:). The output is here. The bottom of the page has a download link, downloaded it into this file without modifications.

Next, had to write some analysis code for the whole thing as well, converting the data into suitable database, fixing some errors in the primary database’s data formats. So in the end I had a simple little script that does:

  1. Clean up some of the names (some Unicode errors originally), and fixes one: I do want to convert the original “Taiwan Province of China” into “Taiwan”…
  2. Fix formatting errors in the IMF  data: they used number formats of “12,345.00” instead of just “12345.00”
  3. Fill missing values with “-1” so it’s easy to filter out later
  4. Rank countries by fuel price, ignore countries that have missing economic data or missing price data
  5. Combine all this and print out on the console

(Scripts and data are shared in this git repo.)

Taking a look

I was looking around for some useful visualizer – something that can handle this much data better then an ordinary static plot. Fortunately, Highcharts JS seems to just the right thing…

The first plot I wanted to reproduce is the one from GIZ’s Data preview. Let’s see how it works out:

Instructions: “red”/”blue” countries are net oil exporter/importer respectively, hover over any of the lines to see which country it is, can click-and-drag zoom into area…

So yeah, Taiwan is down at 49 out of 161 countries, and just few net-importer (blue) countries ranking higher. Even those are mostly poor ones.

Now the second picture, how do fuel prices compare with GDP/capita – which I naively think to have some connection to economical power:

Instructions: note that the GDP scale is logarithmic, hover and zoom are the same as before.

Might be just my eyes, but it seems to me that there are two lines on this plot if one ignores the net exporter (red) countries for a second. From the middle to the right prices are increasing: the wealthier countries can pay more for the fuel. On the other hand, from the middle to the left prices are increasing again: poorer countries cannot really afford it. The cheapest (nominally) are the middle-to-poor, $1000-5000 GDP/person countries.

Bottom line: Taiwan is there at ~$18000/¢100, and if there are indeed these lines, then Taiwan is waaaay below the wealthy country line. Based on the economy, the price should be closer to ¢150. This suggest to me that the original assessment was correct: Taiwanese fuel is cheap.

Global Price API

All of this data-hunting and conversion and plotting should not be this much of a pain. I have a feeling there’s need and desire for open access for such information and that transparency would help people’s decision making – whether those people are in charge or part of the public (and should be “ultimately in charge”). Of course, I’m not the only one to say this, and I’m not even a very good one making this happen – just check out Hans Rosling’s TED talk.

I was thinking, how to build a globally accessible database of consumer prices? Fuel is a good choice because it’s universally needed and there are not too many kinds, one can compare apples to apples. On the other hand, there could be other items as well. Maybe recruit a few volunteers from a big bunch of countries so periodically they add more info to a database. Or fully crowdsource it, maybe even the item categories as well? Then build an interface that it can be easily queried and used by programmers and non-programmers as well. Or is there any such database already? Pitching version: “Archive.org for global price and other public data”. Not that I have a business model for this… I’m sure I’d prefer the same as SimpleGeo and completely open the data itself, but I know there are people who will still find opportunities – or make some.

Any thoughts on this? One selfish thought I have is that this would be lovely so I never ever again have to manually enter all the names of all the countries of the world. :) But I do believe there’s much more to this project.