#Asia The debacle surrounding Singapore’s ‘I Sea’ exemplifies a problem in tech media


I Sea is an extreme example but to build an engaged and interested consumer base, intellectual honesty is invaluable

As the old saying goes, ‘If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is’.

For the Singaporean app ‘I Sea’, an app purporting to allow well-meaning citizens to view satellite activity and alert authorities of the location of refugee boats in the Mediterranean.

Developed by Grey for Good, the charity arm of the advertising company Grey, the app was the temporary darling of tech media, getting features in, among others, Reuters and Wired.

The app was in partnership with the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) and it was honoured at Cannes Lions with a bronze medal.

Unfortunately, it turns out, the entire product misrepresented itself. Wired, possibly pissed off for feeling burned, called it a ‘Hoax’ while the New York Times used the term ‘misleading’.

It was the Daily Dot that blew the entire controversy open. Detailing satellite images of the same location, fake weather ‘updates’ that are actually from Libya and even an egregious example of the app displaying day images when it would be night in the Mediterranean.

After the Daily Dot expose, Apple removed the app from its App Store.

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For its sake Grey for Good says the app is in testing mode, but did so after the Daily Dot article and the resounding backlash from major media organisations (like the New York Times) that don’t normally cover the daily ins-and-outs of app development news.

MOAS handled the situation beautifully and if there is a silver lining to the entire debacle it is a renewed faith that MOAS is actually working to save lives in the Mediterranean. I would highly suggest reading the entire statement, but the soundbite version is below:

“We were dismayed to discover that real time images were not being used. We have since discontinued our relationship with Grey for Good and spoken candidly about our disappointment to the media.”

With this context, and the video below, the only word that to my mind to describe the app is ‘manipulative’.

Revealing a problem in tech media

While the backlash against I Sea has been almost universal across the tech blogosphere, it also brought up a larger issue about reporting on startups — it is, in many instances, a case of trusting that the Founder is not outright lying during an interview or a demo.

Reporters need to ‘trust-but-verify’ as much as possible, but it is not as if Founders I meet begin the interview with, “I’m trying the best I can, but this product might fail”.

Most of the articles I am most proud of are the result of a Founder being brave enough to reveal back-end data or highlight a bug in the product. It allows for comparable context outside of the interview and strengthens the base of the overall framing.

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For media-geeks, pay attention to the use of words like ‘claims’ and ‘according to’. Those are subtle tricks to say, “I don’t have access to internal data, so I am trusting the Founder here”.

It is not as if most startups are maliciously hiding anything, it is just a completely understandable desire to portray the company in the best possible light on a public forum that is nearly impossible to control.

Intellectual honesty goes much further towards positive media coverage than spin-doctoring for exposure. The reason is successful companies have believable brands. Facebook has privacy issues, Uber has morally ambiguous employment plans, Apple is now boring and Microsoft is the original ‘startup killer’.

But, at least I understand the company and can make a thoughtful decision as to whether or not I want to use the product.

Josh Horowitz from Quartz wrote a fantastic piece about startups actually harming their success by getting so caught up in jargon it becomes impossible to figure out that a ‘mobile-first last-mile logistics platform’ is actually a just delivery company.

Ruzwana Basheer, the Founder of Peek.com, said it best:

“The power of real debate is in the language and intellectual honesty of the debaters, alongside the engagement of the spectators.”

I Sea is an extreme example, and unfortunately has done quite a bit of damage, but it’s perfectly fine to say this life-saving app is in testing mode; just don’t accept a Cannes Lions award until the app works.


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