Archive for the ‘Search’ Category

Big Data, the Machines and You

Friday, September 14th, 2012

Ah, Big Data, the old IT bandwagon rides again eh?  Who’s with me?  Yeah, you and every other IT consultancy in town.

The thing is, beyond the hyperbole (and of course the ridiculous notion that data can be big or small or even mid-sized) incredible things are beginning to happen with data that affect the products and services we use, how we innovate and even how we understand the world around us.

More and more we are using big data services to help us in our personal lives, they recommend our purchases, answer our search queries, even translate our languages and every day, through the beauty and wonder that is machine learning, they get _better_.

Having access to more and more data, combined with technological advances like the cloud which provide seemingly limitless storage and compute power we are able, finally to start to harness the incredible power and potential it offers not just society at a broad level or just to huge organisations like Microsoft, Google and Facebook but we also start to get to a point where that power becomes accessible to every individual and every single business.

As with all such major advancements, we’ll face our fair share of challenges too; some will be technical – we’re still looking for the needle, but now it’s in a billion haystacks, some will be cultural – how do you ensure that data is accessible and of sufficient quality? And some will be just plain hard – like in a world of data and machine learning, what happens when the algorithms take over?

As it turns out, bandwagon or no, big data is crucial to our respective success.  Don’t believe me?  Well, why not waste 30 minutes of your life listening to me trying to convince you.  This is a presentation I gave at this year’s Turing Festival trying to make exactly that point.  (You can also download the slides here).

Like it or not, the world of big data is here – it is now up to us to figure out how to make best use of it.

(n.b. Thanks and appropriate respect go to both GetAmbition and Interactive Scotland for both organising the event and creating video and supporting collateral).

Preparing Our Future – The Need for Critical Thinking

Thursday, May 31st, 2012

thinkThere has been much discussion in the UK recently about the importance of getting the right approach to the role of technology in schools.  Many have used this as the opportunity to reinforce the need for greater emphasis on the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) with further focus being given to the need to create a new generation of “kids who code”.  Whilst this on its own is an incredibly important initiative, it is vitally important to continue to remind ourselves that it is still just a subset of the overall duty of care we have as technologists to ensure that every single aspect of society is empowered by technology.  Yes that means having great software, and as such brilliant computer scientists, but more importantly it means ensuring that every single member of society knows how to make the best use of technology whatever their societal role – this is our modern equivalent of a “PC on every desk”.

In order to achieve this it means that we need to get beyond teaching the “tools” and start teaching the “skills” that will make all the difference for the workforce of the future. In particular it requires that our children and every other member of our society are equipped with the cognitive capability and skills that enable them to harness the incredible potential that technology brings to us. It is no longer  just a case of “feeding” them with the basic tools that will become obsolete tomorrow, but instead teaching them to “fish” in a growing digital pool.

Within our brave new digital world, one of the most important skills we must learn is “critical thinking” a concept that rather incredibly, dates back to Socrates over 2000 years ago, but after being “recently” updated in the 20th century for a modern society by many great scholars it provides an powerful framework for our internet age.

findEvery single day, we are bombarded by millions of signals of data, information and content, and every single day the quantity of information we are exposed to grows exponentially.  These days we are still looking for the needle, it’s just that now it’s in a billion haystacks.

Critical thinking is about “reflective” rather than “routine” thought, it’s the process of “active, persistent and careful consideration” of the credibility and conclusions of supposed knowledge or information.

Most of us use critical thinking every day and for most of the time, we are barely aware of it.  Every time we read a newspaper article, watch a documentary or look something up on Wikipedia we are aware of a whole range of biases, influences and emotions that may interfere with the validity, accuracy and overall conclusion of the content and, if we’re doing our job properly, we take all of that into account as we parse the information, reflect on it drawing in a range of other context and ultimately use it to draw conclusions and make decisions.

Fortunately for us, we’ve had years of practice and experimentation to get this right but in this new digital age, where children and young people have so much access to an incredible world of information but have yet to develop the skills to know how to deal with it.

From an early age, we need to ensure that children using the internet are able draw upon critical thinking skills to:

Search efficiently and effectively – depending not solely on the search engine’s view of relevancy but able to navigate and adjust the query to ensure the most appropriate results.

Distinguish kinds of sources and analyse a source’s validity and reliability – from basic differentiation of primary vs secondary sources through to deconstructing domain names and URL’s to learn more context about the source.

Make a habit of cross checking facts, even from reliable sources – we know from experience that even “authorities” can mislead and experts make mistakes so wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the facts.

Conscientiously and properly attribute the words and ideas of others – the internet has made plagiarism a lot easier, but thankfully, easier to spot. Students need to know the basic rules about when and how to quote others’ words and how to properly attribute the ideas that are not their own.

Stay safe on the internet – these are some of the most important skills of all, from not giving out personal information through to taking care about the kind of conversations they enter into on-line, staying safe is absolutely paramount. 

Interact with others online honestly, respectfully, fairly and clearly – the anonymity, immediacy and lack of proximity presented by the internet can lead to anti-social behaviour, sometimes with devastating consequences. Learning how to speak honestly, fairly, and with respect, clarity and brevity along with understanding why this is important in a society, especially a democracy, is crucial.

(Note: More detail on each of these areas, as well as lesson ideas for different ages of students can be found in the “Critical Thinking” white paper we published in 2010)

So, as we prepare to wind down this educational year and pause over the summer to think about the role of ICT in the new school year in September, please, let’s make sure we keep a firm focus on ensuring that as well as being brilliant at coding, our future citizens (and workforce) are equipped with all the necessary skills to make the very best of all that technology will have to offer them.

The You Centric Web (Personalisation 2.0)

Wednesday, February 1st, 2012

clip_image001We live in a world that is increasingly connected, with services that offer a degree of “personalisation” based on assumptions of our needs created on an extrapolation of our previous actions.  As our digital footprints become larger and more connected, we are offered the potential to move to a new level of services that place us, rather than the services we consume firmly at the centre, a web that is ultimately formed around the individual rather than the other way around.

Today, personalisation is an incredibly blunt tool. The services we use, the content we consume, the adverts we see are all provided based on the basis of some prediction as to what we might be trying to achieve based on our past behaviours.  However, it is not just that this prediction is currently extremely basic, it also does not yet fully take into account the rich, broad context that accompanies us wherever we are, whatever we are doing, a context that holds the key to creating services and experiences that offer us not just a precise reflection of the services we need but also positions us to make discoveries of incredible new content, products and truly human experiences.

As individuals, our actions are guided by a complex range of signals which we intuitively use both explicitly and implicitly.  These signals form the basis for the services and content we choose to consume and influence the decisions and discoveries we make in everything we do.  The You Centric Web is a place that is not just aware of this context, but brings it together and makes sense of it, delivering an overall experience that is truly reflective of us as unique individuals.

This context exists across four key dimensions that are real time, living states that change and shift as we go about our everyday lives.  The four dimensions that influence our behaviour are:

Emotional – my emotional state.  My current emotional level will influence the decisions I make and the services I’m looking for. For example the music I select when I’m happy may be different from that which I select when I’m less so.

Social – who is with me physically and my virtual social connections.  Watching a sports game or a movie with friends is a different experience to watching it alone or connected to others remotely for a shared viewing experience.  Equally, the context of what my friends do is also a powerful signal that provides a trusted source of influence that may be incorporated to help me make my decision.

Environmental – where I am, the device I’m using, the time of day, the temperature, my location, my direction of travel, the current weather and so on.  Each of these factors plays a role in influencing both my decision and equally inferring the intent of my actions.  Searching for “sushi” on my mobile device at lunchtime while walking down a street in the centre of town will likely be for a different purpose than if I were to search for it sat at home in the evening on my main home computer.

External – This represents a broad range of external factors that offer further contextual signals that may influence my actions and decisions.  For example, a significant societal issue (like the recession) or a nationwide campaign on childhood poverty (or global warming etc) may make me consider different choices about the activity, actions and content I pursue.

These four domains are joined together and under-pinned by a rich pool of historical evidence about previous actions which can serve to highlight a likely (but not certain) outcome for any given decision or choice.

The connection of these different dimensions of context has been impossible in the past as not only did we lack the ability to accurately capture and interpret our current state in real time, we also lacked the ability to join them all together and analyse them as a collective.  In a world of socially connected experiences, big data, cloud computing and natural user interfaces this really starts to change.

Using natural interface technologies like Kinect, we are finally able to start to capture and use much richer information about the emotional, social and (some of) the environmental factors that will influence my activities. As they continue to evolve, devices like Kinect will help understand our emotional state, the environment we’re sitting in and who is with us. Early examples of this have already been shown, but we know it is still early days and the technology still has much further to go before this is pervasive and usable across a variety of services.

clip_image002In addition to the technological developments described above, the increasing capability to connect and analyse vast, disparate data sources starts to provide the opportunity to take a broader “systemic” view and a deeper level of insight that can be used to infer further elements of the context surrounding an individual.  In this area, the brave new world of “Big Data” and the cloud becomes an immensely powerful capability that offers the potential to provide incredible new context and insight that can be used to shape experiences even further. My favourite example of this was some recent research done in the US that analysed cellphone usage data from 50,000 individuals and was able to accurately predict the _future_ location of any given individual with 93% confidence. (And there I was thinking I was in control. )

By joining up and effectively understanding this broad, rich context, it becomes clear to see how basic today’s world of personalised services is and just how far we’ve yet to go.  Being told that  “people who have bought product A also bought product b” is no longer going to feel useful or even relevant.

However, beyond the further technological innovation that will be required to make this a reality, there are also several advances in how we as a modern society think about, use and trust the services that will be required if we are to get to a point where we can really maximise the potential of this world that is moulded around the individual.  In particular, there is a growing trend of a fear of “over personalisation”, a world full of filters and “popular content” which is devoid of discovery and one in which the power (and importance of) serendipity becomes increasingly hard to come by.

The common mistake being made that drives this fear is to think that personalisation by default excludes discovery, or that perfect personalisation means ultimate precision.  This is a world where I am precluded from finding new things which I am unaware of or from uncovering new items which may not be considered relevant to my interests.  In many ways, the You Centric Web must represent the slightly random, uncontrolled nature of our human world, injecting random and unrelated content in order to broaden and extend the overall experience and introduce new direction and insight.  In some ways, this is no different to the role a good news editor plays in ensuring that the audience receives a broad range of content that is of interest to the majority along with an essential range of content that is intended to interrupt and disrupt your established areas of interest – a process that not only broadens the mind, but equally expands the potential for new discovery and conclusions (and the adjacent possible).

clip_image003In a world drowning in data and information, personalisation provides the only way for an individual to not just find, but most importantly, to trust the information and services being provided.  Trust is key here, not only does the consumer need to trust the services, they increasingly need to be able to trust the service provider, to know that their data and information about themselves is respected, kept private unless the consumer has indicated otherwise.

We need to recognise that our society continues along a long established journey about privacy that is not new in the information age, it has in fact been an issue for discussion and debate for hundreds of years.  The information age accelerates the pace of change, but the basic principles remain the same for the individual.  I need control, I need transparency and increasingly, I need a tangible value proposition (i.e. what do I get in return).

These principles, offer us a way forward.  By putting the individual in control of their data, being transparent about how the data is being used and crucially being really explicit about the value that will be provided we can turn around some of the “trust issues” that we read about so frequently today. 

The You Centric Web offers an inversion of today’s web, placing the user at the centre and in full control of the overall experience. It promotes discovery, celebrates serendipity and offers a personalised path through the oceans of data, content and experiences that the modern digital society has to offer. The technology required to deliver the You Centric Web is beginning to appear now, but we have further to travel before it can reach its full potential.    As a society, we will have to shift our expectations of how the digital world can augment the physical world and service and content providers will need to plan for and deliver on the potential of this connected, intensely personalised world as well as work hard to win the trust of consumers by placing them at the centre and protecting and respecting their rights.   The You Centric Web is an inevitable part of our technological evolution; it is now down to all of us to ensure we are able to take up the promise of everything it has to offer.

Voice Recognition: NUI’s Unsung Hero

Wednesday, January 11th, 2012

I recently got asked to provide an opinion on “voice recognition”, in particular around our philosophy towards it and how we’ve implemented it across the stack.  If you can stomach it, you can see how it turned out (let’s put it this way, it opens with a comparison to the Hoff’s “Knight Rider”) and it kind of goes downhill from there but regardless, in doing the research, I learnt some really interesting things along the way that I thought I’d share here.

soundwave2First off, let’s start by asking how many of you know how speech recognition works these days?  Well I thought I did, but it turns out I didn’t.  Unlike the early approach, where you used to have to “train” the computer to understand you by spending hours and hours reading to your computer (which always kind of defeated the object to me), today, speech recognition works pretty much the same way they teach kids to speak/read, using phonemes, digraphs and trigraphs. The computer simply tries to recognise the shapes and patterns of the words being spoken, then using some clever logic and obviously an algorithm or two, performs some contextual analysis (makes a guess) on what is the most probable sentence or command you might be saying.

In the early days of speech recognition, the heavy lifting required was all about the listening and conversion from analogue to digital, today it’s in the algorithmic analysis on what it is most likely that you are saying.  This subtle shift has opened up probably the most significant advance in voice recognition in the last twenty years, the concept of voice recognition as a “cloud” service.

A year or so ago, I opened a CIO event for Steve Ballmer, given I was on stage first, I got a front row seat at the event and watched Ballmer up close and personal as he proceeded to tell me, and the amassed CIO’s from our 200 largest customers, that the Kinect was in fact a “cloud device”.  At the time I remember thinking, “bloody hell Steve, even for you that’s a bit of a stretch isn’t it?”.  I filed it away under “Things CEO’s say when there’s no real news” and forgot about it, until now that is when I finally realised what he meant.

Basically, because with a connected device (like Kinect), the analysis of your movements and the processing for voice recognition can now also be done in the cloud. We now have the option (with the consumer’s appropriate permission) to use those events to provide a service that continuously learns and improves.  This ultimately means that the voice recognition service you use today is actually different (and minutely inferior) to the same service that you’ll use tomorrow.   This is incredibly powerful and also shows you that the “final mile” of getting voice recognition right lies more now with the algorithm that figures out what you’re mostly likely to be saying than it does with the actual recognition of the sounds.  MSR have a number of projects underway around this (my current favourite being the MSR’s Sentence Completion Challenge), not to mention our own development around how this might apply within search.

Those of you that have been following these ramblings in the past will know I’m slightly sceptical of voice recognition, thinking that it is technology’s consistent wayward child, full of potential, yet unruly, unpredictable and relentlessly under-achieved.  I’m not saying my view has changed overnight on this, but am certainly more inclined to think it will happen, based on this single, crucial point.

Kinect too provides its own clue that we’re a lot closer than we previously thought to making voice recognition a reality, not just in the fact that it uses voice recognition as a primary mode of (natural) interaction but more in how it tries to deal with the other end of the voice recognition problem – just how do you hear _anything_ when you are sat on top of the loudest source of noise in the room (the TV) when someone 10 feet away is trying to talk to you in the middle of a movie (or the final level on Sonic Generations, sat next to a screaming 6 year old who’s entire opinion of your success as a father rests on your ability to defeat the final “boss” ).  If you have a few minutes and are interested, this is a wonderful article that talks specifically about that challenge and how we employ the use of an array of 4 microphones to try and solve the problem.  There’s still more work to be done here, but it’s a great start in what is actually an incredibly complex problem  – think about it, if I can’t even hear my wife in the middle of a game of Halo or an episode of Star Trek (original series of course) how the hell is Kinect going to hear? (Oh, I’ve just been informed by her that apparently that particular issue is actually not a technical problem… #awkward).

So these two subtle technological differences in our approach are going to make all the difference in voice recognition becoming a reality as part of a much more natural way of interacting with technology.  Once that happens, we move into the really interesting part of the problem – our expectations of what we can do with it.

expectOur kids are a great way of understanding just how much of Pandora’s box getting into voice recognition (and other more natural forms of interaction) will be and I suspect that ultimately, our greatest challenge will be living up to the expectation of what is possible across all the forms of technical interaction we have, NUI parity across devices if you like.  My son’s expectation (quite reasonably) is that if he can talk to his xBox, then he should be able to talk to any other device and furthermore, if he can ask it to play movies and navigate to games why can’t it do other things?  I was sitting doing my research with him the night before my interview on all of this, and we were playing together at getting the voice recognition to work.  He asked the xBox play his movie, he told Sonic which level to play on Kinect FreeRiders then he paused, looked at me and then back at the TV, cracked a cheeky smile and said, “Xbox, do my homework…”.

Parliament and Internet – Visions for the Internet and Social

Thursday, October 13th, 2011

This morning, I had the enviable honour of joining Facebook, Google, and RIM on a panel discussion in front of the 6th annual Parliament and Internet conference (I had my poshest frock on and everything).

Although the guys on security stopped me from bringing my soapbox into Portcullis House with me, I did get an opportunity to talk about rural broadband, the humanisation of the web, and the arrogance of the present, I also managed to squeeze a tenuous Spiderman joke in and overall I had a lot of fun. Here’s my speech in full:

“I’d like to start by trying to confuse you with a contradiction – the technology revolution is both over and just beginning. It’s over because we’ve spent a long time getting used to technology being around and becoming part of our everyday lives and it’s just beginning because, only now that technology is so engrained in how we live, are the real opportunities being presented.

Slide25We know from our own studies and anecdotal research that in general, most people go home to better technology (faster, more recent) than they are provided with at work. People generally enjoy a rich technological experience in their personal lives, shopping on-line, enjoying entertainment, playing games and communicating with friends, but unfortunately this experience is not always mirrored in the workplace with the constraints imposed by corporate budgets, security concerns and in some cases, over-zealous IT management. To call this a missed opportunity is like saying Facebook is marginally successful.

Please understand that all of this does not discount the challenge we continue to face in this country around closing the digital divide, but it is an acknowledgement that the gap is closing thanks in no small part to the continued efforts of champions like Martha Lane Fox and her team with Race Online 2012.

Slide28That being said, we know people use technology effectively for many aspects of their lives and those of you with children will see just how pervasive technology has become. From my own experience, I watch my son with great interest as he just adapts and integrates technology and the internet into his world. For him, technology (the web, the Xbox, the mobile phone) are no different to him than the TV, books or traditional toys and he integrates all of them into his everyday life with equal enthusiasm and interest. But I want to stop short with that example, because I fear it runs the risk of reinforcing one of the great myths that actually I would rather dispel than support and that is that these technologies are perceived to only be accessible or useful to younger generations and those of us who find ourselves, well, let’s just say, on the wrong side of youth are left behind or left out. But, time and time again our research shows this to be a stupid assumption to make. Stupid because the statistics show the biggest growth of the use of new tools like social networking are actually in older generations and stupid again because we know in our own anecdotal experiences these technologies have made a big difference on how we live our lives every day. My favourite example can actually be found once a week on a Thursday evening during Question Time. If you were to open up Twitter and follow the Question Time hashtag you will witness a quiet revolution of normal everyday people getting engaged in democratic discussion about how our country is run and the current affairs that affect us all. Thanks to the wonders of the internet and social networks, that experience has been transformed from a one-way “transmission” (or as it was in my house, just me shouting at the telly) to a totally collaborative experience that engages the audience and the panel in a way only dreamed of previously.

The rise of social networking and it’s fundamental importance to the future of how a modern society can benefit from technology is a topic that is not yet well understood. We probably have ourselves to blame, but let me tell you now that social networking is not about providing an endless commentary of trivial anecdotes about my life as an individual, you know the ones I mean “just had the world’s best latte! LOL” or “overslept again, don’t tell the boss” but in many ways actually represents as big a revolution to our use of the internet as the web did when it first became mainstream. This may be a revelation to many of you, but the real value of social networking lies not just in the communications themselves, but also in the connections that are made in order for the communications to flow. With social networking, we are finally able to move from a network of machines, a cold, logical place governed by the ones and zeros of binary code to a network of people, where human intent and instinct combines with the power that the digital world has to offer.

Slide-32Social networking offers us the potential to “humanise the web”, augmenting the power that the internet’s connection and collaboration provides with a human signal that provides citizens, organisations and governments with the ability to connect and effect change on a scale never before imaginable. This year the world has witnessed incredible scenes, some good, some bad of how citizens have grabbed the power that social networks have to offer in order to effect massive change in the way in which they are governed. This year we have seen how citizens can use Facebook to organise a revolution, Twitter to orchestrate it on the day and YouTube to tell the world. Detractors may point to the ugly scenes in London and across the UK from back in the summer but the truth is that social media played as big a part in the clean up as it did on the temporary disruption in our nation’s morality.

It is said, that “on the internet, no-one knows you’re a dog” – well the truth is, today on the internet, no-one knows you’re in Dolgellau – the internet is a geographic leveller, it offers incredible opportunities that transcend geographical location, enabling global companies to be borne out of local, rural locations, where the only real constraints are those of the entrepreneurs imagination and, oh yes, available bandwidth. This is both our opportunity and our curse, we have in our midst incredible rural communities rich in talent, expertise and experience, who throughout the UK, have long been the industrial heartbeat of our nation but increasingly are struggling to remain competitive or even operative in the midst of a global marketplace in recession. If we are able to correctly crack the problem of providing sufficient connectivity to these locations, there is almost nothing to stop the next global success stories coming from places like North Wales, Cumbria or deepest, darkest Dorset.

In the future I am convinced our descendants will look at our work practices with pity, failing to comprehend why we all felt compelled to travel long distances just so we could be in the same place, at the same time as our colleagues. In these days of predominantly service and knowledge industries this feels somewhat out of sync with the capabilities of technology. What if we used these technologies more and changed our work practices creating local hubs across communities throughout the country? Not only would this have a massive economic impact in terms of reclaiming lost time, it also would have significant positive upside on both the environment and more importantly the local economies of these areas enabling small and medium businesses to flourish in support of the local workforce.

Throughout the history of our civilisation it is has often been remarked that we have sufficient technology to achieve our goals and this is actually one of the most dangerous views we face. If we had heeded that advice would we have harnessed fire, the industrial revolution, electricity, the car? Possibly not. History provides us with great examples of where this “arrogance of the present” clouds our judgement “the world will only ever need 3 or 4 computers” or even our own Bill Gates claiming “no-one will need more than 640Kb of RAM” but the truth is, it is incredibly difficult to judge the future value of any given innovation when it can only be judged by a current mindset, the current norm so to speak.

The internet and social networks offer a modern society opportunities and advances far beyond the reach of simple social connections and communication, used properly, they truly offer the potential for the combination of man and machine to become greater than the sum of their parts.

But, this development will require some effective stewardship and will present our society with complex issues that we must all face and work our way through and with that, in closing, I am reminded of that famous quote from the cultural classic that is “Spiderman, the movie” – “with great power comes great responsibility” – the internet, social networks and other associated technologies offer our society incredible opportunity and advantages and both we as technology providers and you as policy makers and legislators have a duty of care to ensure that we can live up to the opportunity – the question really is – are we up to that challenge?

Exploring the Adjacent Possible

Wednesday, September 28th, 2011

Over the summer, a friend recommended Steve Johnson’s book “Where Good Ideas Come From – the natural history of innovation”, not only is it a great book, it contains some really important themes that I think are worth calling out for future exploration. Here’s a few that resonated with me (and why) but you can expect to hear more about these in the coming weeks. (Anyone paying attention will also note that Johnson dedicates a whole chapter in his book to “serendipity” – I have excluded it from this post not because I don’t find it relevant but because I want to focus on it much more deeply in the near future.)

1) The Adjacent Possible
This is one of those “obvious now that you mention it” kind of things where simply, when you are looking for the best ideas, or what makes ideas work, you have to find the ideas that are adjacent to existing concepts, two steps away is too far and will never happen, one step away and you’re in. This is where the natural history meme comes in, if you think about evolution, you can’t start at the big bang and immediately make humans or sunflowers or puppies or chicken tikka massala (although I’m thinking there would have been enough heat there for a pretty efficient tandoor oven so you could have had a shot at that last one), the point is you have to incrementally change all those atoms and molecules over a period of time until the evolutionary process provides you with the opportunity to move that final strand of DNA or molecule to make that complex outcome or even Graham Norton.

hovercarThis principle is exactly the same for our ideas, the reason I can’t have my hovercar is because the concept is not adjacent to our existing ideas or technological capabilities – we simply lack the building blocks to put it together (although, after hearing about that Swiss bloke practising fusion in his kitchen, you’ve got to think that somewhere out there, is a Doc Brown waiting to happen).

In the book, Johnson uses the analogy of a house with infinite rooms, all interconnected. You walk into the first room, it has 4 doors each connected to further rooms with further doors. You can’t go to any room in the house without first traversing a series of other, connected rooms. This is where some of the inherent beauty of the adjacent possible lies, it’s potential grows exponentially with every new stage of discovery.

It’s also a great tool to try and use when you’re trying to validate the strength of any given idea – does it represent the adjacent possible or the distant impossible?

2) Liquid Networks & Exaptation
Forgive me, while I get all Hybrid Organisation on your collective asses, but we’ve been talking for a couple of years now, about the importance of workplace design and its relationship to the collective innovation of a team or organisation. Johnson provides some nice analogies that help to push that story a little further. So, close your eyes, put yourself back a few years and imagine yourself back in the 5th form at school, in double Physics to be precise, just before your mock O’level. Using the concept of solids, liquids and gases, Johnson describes the inherent ability for individuals (acting like molecules) to oscillate those individuals around them (stop sniggering at the back Coplin, I said “oscillate”). If you constrain the extent to which the individuals can move, i.e. restrict their office layout with offices and cubicles, it’s like the molecules in a solid, they exist but have little effect on each other. If you go to the other extreme and remove all constraints (i.e. no office at all) you end up with chaos (the collaborative equivalent of a gaseous state) where molecules dissipate into the environment and have little effect on each other.

What you really want, he proposes, (and the Hybrid Organisation agrees) is a liquid state, where the molecules are free to move around but remain within the overall context of the organisation. Molecules can bounce around inside the liquid, resulting in an agile collective can change shape and move as needs dictate. This is essentially creating the perfect environment for collaboration, innovation and exaptation. Exaptation? That’s when an organism develops a trait for a specific use, then that trait gets hijacked for a completely different purpose. Feathers are the classic example of this, initially evolved to provide temperature regulation for birds, the birds discovered that they’re also pretty good for flying too, and then evolution takes over and you end up with streamlined aerofoils rather than fluffy, downy warmth.

Exaptation of ideas is a huge part of innovation and is also a crucial part of serendipity. Like serendipity, it also requires a free, liquid network that enables disparate ideas, individuals or concepts to come together to create innovation.

3) The Slow Hunch – Why Eureka! Takes Time
EurekaThere’s not much to this important concept, other than it dispels the myth that most of our great innovations come from single individuals who experience a “light bulb” moment and have the big idea. Although that explanation may work for Hollywood because it’s a better and easier story to tell, the reality is that many of the important discoveries, innovations and ideas of our entire history are actually the result of lifetimes of work and study often bordering onto obsession. We know this inherently, but often choose to ignore it. Our best ideas, are often the ones that we’ve left to fester at the back of our minds, nurtured and tended by, a long shower or a long walk, to help them mature to their full potential. <Assumes crap French accent> “Ideas are like fine wines, they need time to mature, percolate and infuse” .

The reality of the slow hunch is actually a cumulative factor that builds on liquid networks, exaptation and serendipity – all elements that make our view on _­discovery_ so crucial to our overall objective in search. What is key then, is to be able to feed, nurture and evolve an individual concept over a long period of time, incredibly though it seems that in order to make the breakthrough, the concept needs to be at the background of your cognitive activity not the foreground, slowly percolating away to completion.

You may not see the link in all of this, but every time I walk into the office I do. These days, I know I’m pretty lucky, I have a job that makes it easy for me to explore the adjacent possible, to “exapt” ideas by forming a liquid network of influencers and thought leaders inside and outside of Microsoft – but I also can see the constraints, especially as we get busier, we don’t always have time for the slow hunch to mature, and we find it hard to leave the safe confines of our team, office or sector. My encouragement to you is to make time, make time to cultivate new ideas, make time to speak to people outside of your team, make time to explore the adjacent possible. It won’t help you today, but I guarantee it will set the stage for your greatness tomorrow.

Local is the new Global

Monday, June 13th, 2011

“Think Global, Act Local” or so the cliché goes. Thing is, this is about to become more possible and more accurate than ever before.  What this means for us as individuals in a modern society is a classic case for "arrogance of the present", _we just don’t know_, because most of us find it hard to imagine a world of such hyper-connectivity where the world takes on a very different viewpoint where most things become available within local reach but offering global supply.

For most of us, things like Foursquare and Gowalla are amusing distractions used primarily by the authorities to help identify and track the location and movement of geeks, but in fact they (and the infrastructural elements they rely on) will ultimately become the very fabric of how we access, consume and pay for services in the very near future.

batcaveI’m OK with the fact that most people think the above is a bit of a stretch, however, I’m actually more worried about the fact that because we can’t really imagine how all this stuff will come together, I don’t think we’ve properly figured out the true potential of what a powerful, connected, _local_ view on our world means yet and as such, I think we risk being derailed (at worst) or delayed (at best) in our ability to deliver an incredibly transformative change to the way in which technology enhances our lives.

Assuming we buy the current trajectory of smartphone sales  (n.b. when do we stop calling them smart? When everybody is smart, is _anybody_ smart anymore?).  We know that pretty soon, there will be more smartphones than dumb ones and new sales of slates and phones will outstrip PC’s – the mobile device revolution is finally here El Presidente, so let’s move on and think about the really important stuff before Apple ships another iPhone and everyone gets distracted again.

There are three key areas we need to figure out and triangulate if we are to achieve the vision, these are:

  1. Location (where am I?, where are you? and what else is near?)
  2. Geographic Meta data (POI at a macro and micro level)
  3. Connectivity (people, networks and devices)

I’m not going to get everything on the table on all 3 of these in one post alone, so for now, let’s just start with a broad definition, ready for deeper exploration in the future.

Location
There are three dimensions of location that we need to supply:  Where am I? Where is the "target"? What else is nearby? And of these three it is the first that should concern us most.  We currently rely on a brilliant but outdated and vulnerable service to locate ourselves which is also extremely flawed in its ability to provide accurate and timely location information to us in our localised existence or rather, should I more simply say, indoors or in the city…

Controversy aside, we desperately need _a range_ of mechanisms to identify our location and to be able to do so in a way that is fast, battery friendly and works indoors.  Funnily enough, it actually doesn’t need to be that precise, it just needs to be within 5m, we can figure out the rest for ourselves.  Good news is, (if you read behind the headlines) we are well on the way to solving this, externally at least, we need a much better (standard?) approach for how this might be achieved cost effectively indoors.

Geographic Meta-data
We need to think about location meta data (points of information etc) at both a macro and micro level.  At a micro level this is about a taxonomy of stores, services, opening times and other ancillaries like street furniture (e.g. post boxes, gritting bins etc) , at a micro level this needs to be really extended down to a very near field level providing a much more granular view of the environment around you.  This level of detail is crucial, for example, it’s no longer enough to know that the train station has disabled access facilities, you need to know which _exact_ door is the one that has zero lip for disabled access, or which end of the train should you stand to be nearest to the exit for your particular stop etc.

North America seems to do quite well at a macro level whereas in the UK we don’t with retailers and service providers (public and private) being rather slow (myopically so) in signing up and advertising in the established platforms.  We all suck however at the micro level, and it is this information we really need to figure out how to easily acquire and on-board.

Connectivity
This is about remembering we live in an "occasionally disconnected" world.  We may have pervasive mobile broadband but this doesn’t mean that it’s always available.  As application designers however, we seem to have forgotten that.  Most mobile apps these days will only function if a connection is present – this is a bad approach.  I live in the most populous country in Europe and work in the most populous city in the world yet I still experience several occasions _every day_ when I am without signal.  This probably adds up to about 2-3 hours _a day_ when I can’t use my smart device because the app designer has not thought about local caching (and before you start dusting off that fanboy attitude you’ve been saving, I’m packing multiple devices and they’re all the same).  This is not going to change anytime soon because we lack the funds and science (we’re dealing with the laws of physics here too ya know) so we need to get over it. Design apps and mobile platforms for the "occasionally disconnected" world and we’ll be fine.  (BTW – the historians among you will remember, this is what we used to do before we got fat, dumb and lazy with the promise of mobile broadband. When patchy mobile data was the best that was available, you were grateful for it and respectful of its use, 4G connection you say?, all we had was the thin end of a damp bit of string – Luxury…).

Connectivity is also about connecting individuals (When you’re walking down the street and pass a café that your best mate is sitting in, you want to know right? Or do you?)  and it’s also about connecting devices, the whole peer to peer network thing, but played out on mobile. (Man if I was smart I’d be buying shares in Groove and Ray Ozzie now, no wait, been there, missed out on that.)  Both of these we’ll cover in detail some other time.

So you will have figured out by now, there are no answers this week, just big questions.  Great for me as it gives me more room for what I think is the most important of the 127 "big bets" we’re undoubtedly going to have for months ahead and great for you because maybe, you’re sitting out there with some of the answer, come on now, don’t be shy.

Back to the Forbidden Planet – Exploring in the Digital World

Friday, May 27th, 2011

Back in our youth, when we had more time, less experience and big dreams, I suspect many of us will have spent plenty of time exploring.  No, not the pith helmet “Dr Livingstone I presume” kind of exploring or the gap year partying that passes for the “travel broadening the mind” kind of exploring that goes on these days.  No, I mean time well spent exploring music, literature or some other similar love.

FPFor me it was comics (yes, I know, just how much more of the geek stereotype can I fulfil? Just the sandals and Star Trek insignia tattoo now, and I am complete).  I started reading them when I was 7, and they changed my life.  I fell in love with a particular title (2000AD) which, still running today, represents the absolute peak of British writing and comic artistry in this genre but 2000AD alone wasn’t enough, I wanted more.  Remember, these were the days before graphic novels, VHS/DVD, the internet and more than 3 channels on the telly and there were few places in the country you could go to explore this world further.  In fact, there was just one oasis, aptly titled “The Forbidden Planet” a comic shop in London, some 150 miles from my home town.

The Forbidden Planet became a mecca to me, I would make an annual pilgrimage down to London (or semi annual if my pocket money could stand it) just to spend hours in that store on Denmark Street, exploring the incredible new world that I had discovered.  I still remember the place (it’s in a new location and much flasher now), I remember the layout, the euphoria of so much content in one place, I remember the smell of the floorboards and old paper and the excited apprehension that comes from being the country hick in the city.

The hours I spent in there lead me to all sorts of extraordinary places, new comics, books (even proper grown up ones that normal people read), all things I would never have found if I hadn’t had the opportunity for a tactile, tangible experience of what was effectively curated content.  I’ll go out on a limb and make a guess that all of you will have had a similar experience (or maybe still do), it won’t necessarily have been comics, but I’ll bet you spent a lot of time in book stores, record shops, music shops, motorbike dealers whatever, doing exactly the same thing – exploring.

So apart from a little misty eyed nostalgia on my part, what’s the point of all this? Well, the point is that providing the exploratory part of discovery in a digital world is _bloody hard_.  I’m not arguing the semantics here about the value of holding the album cover of your favourite artists new release poring over every detail vs looking at a Jpeg of the same, as I believe we will adapt to getting that experience digitally (and in many ways it can be richer), no this is about coming to a place filled with similar (but not the same) kind of content where you are free to explore your interests. 

As the curators of content, we can do so much, we can provide the path to explore new worlds (both accurately and, as we get smarter, randomly yet with relevance) but we have to work hard to provide the “environmental” experience which becomes so important to us as individuals.  The key actually comes back to the same old thing – “content is king” but in reality what this means (when it comes to exploration) is establishing a broad set of meta-data about individual elements and more importantly, being able to surface this meta-data as well as the specific item as part of the curated content (or search result).  This alone won’t replace those dusty bookstores of our youth, but it will in some way help to form the bridge between the digital and analogue worlds.

In many ways, this is part of the sentiment behind Stefan’s recent allegations that traditional search is failing,  this can easily be passed off as jingoistic hyperbole (as Danny Sullivan tried to postulate on Twitter) but in reality it’s a really important reminder that the web and more broadly the internet is no longer powered by links alone. This is about providing a digital service that is reflective of the analogue equivalent, serving each and every query with a broad result that includes a rich spectrum of responses and associated content, moving us waaaaaaay beyond those 10 blue links once and for all.

Inside Google’s Big Tent

Friday, May 20th, 2011

I spent a day this week inside Google’s “Big Tent” – essentially a high profile event on privacy, hosted by Google, Privacy International and Index on Censorship, with an audience of the very cream of the British digital elite (and me).

I learnt a lot of things of which I’ll share the detail in the moment, but first I thought you should know the headlines:

  1. Eric Schmidt likes Chrome – he says it’s safe and fast.
  2. The Right Honourable Jeremy Hunt, UK Minister for Culture, Media and Sport (and responsible for this country’s legislation around internet use) says the government’s priorities for the internet are speed and mobile.
  3. In other news, the Pope  _is_ catholic and bears _do_ defecate in the woods.

DonkeyI mean seriously, is that the best we can do when it comes to pushing the boundaries of thought leadership around privacy in the digital society?  Thankfully, the audience was mostly cynical hacks and privacy activists – you can imagine how well those points were received.  

Anyhow, with that out of the way, there was in fact an incredible discussion throughout the day on a wide range of local and global topics around privacy and free speech, what follows below are the (admittedly blinkered) takeaways from the discussion that I want to explore further.

  1. It is clear that the law cannot keep pace with changes in technology. If I had a buck for every time someone on a panel said “technology has made an ass of the law” I would have precisely $16.73c.  Although this point was universally agreed, there seemed to be no clear way forward to address this.  Simon Davies from Privacy International had a particularly pragmatic solution – do nothing – effectively let it happen and let them learn. (The context for that point was the discussion around super-injunctions and Twitter in the UK).
  2. Organisation vs the individual. The focus remains to be on what can the “organisation” do to make an individual’s privacy better. Despite pushing from the audience (advocates from Mydex et al in particular) there was little interest in a discussion around what it would mean to put the individual in full control of their information.
  3. Collation vs Publication. There was still a desire to focus on the search engine’s role in collating the content (i.e. the index) vs the actual publisher of the content. I’m wondering why this point is so hard for people outside the industry to grasp.  (see 4 below).
  4. Search is not the internet. Google’s Drummond put this well, “It’s a search engine, not the internet” but the conversation never followed suit. We should have been pushing Jeremy Hunt on the legal changes and leadership required from government i.e. you tell us which is the content we should remove and we’ll do it, the best example being religious extremist content – you want us to remove it, but you won’t tell us what is and what isn’t? Go fish. (My words).
  5. The “Right to be Forgotten” is a jingoistic phrase that not many understand.  Common (mis)perception means that this should allow me to have control about anything about me on the internet.  They forget of course that this conflicts with free speech.  Where we need to move on this discussion is an understanding that individuals should have the right to remove data _they_ have posted about themselves, but not data that _others_ have posted about them.
  6. Privacy Boundaries.  We established at least three clear boundaries around privacy that need to be explored further: Privacy vs Innovation (consensus was that privacy has _never_ impeded innovation), Privacy vs Free Speech (what’s private to you, may be free speech to me – who decides?), and Privacy vs Public Interest (are super-injunctions an expensive waste of time in a digital age).

Like Max Boyce, always said, “I know ‘cause I was there” – but what did _you_ think?

Curation, Serendipity and Rastabilly Skank

Thursday, May 12th, 2011

Although typically talked about in the context of museums and artefacts, increasingly curation is becoming adopted in a digital society as the concept of having others select a collection of content for you.  It’s an incredibly powerful concept and as we move forward with search it becomes one of extreme importance as we seek to get the right combination of both relevancy _and_ trust in our results.

rastabillyCuration of content is nothing new, and I’d forgotten how pervasive it was in how we consume content (and has always been) until I started randomly thinking about how one of this year’s big new trends will be cloud based audio (cue Google, Amazon and Apple announcements) and if I get all my music from the cloud, probably curated through some mechanical process like Lastfm or Pandora then is radio dead? Well, of course it’s not. Radio works because (mostly) they have proper people “curating” collections of tracks for specific audiences.  Humans (especially good ones) know that there’s a difference between the Clash and the Sex Pistols and that “Punk rock” is an attitude not a music style, right kids? (But I digress).

This random thought then joined up with something I’d heard earlier in the week from those lovely folks at the Guardian’s TechWeekly podcast – (sure, I’m sucking up to them, but ignore that, they still represent the _only_ place in this country you can go to for proper analysis on the societal impact of technology).  Last week they interviewed the folks at Artfinder (brilliant concept by the way) and whilst they talked about their innovative service, they stopped off to talk about the importance of curation and our old friend serendipity.  Then Chris Thorpe (founder of Artfinder) said “John Peel was probably the ultimate serendipity engine” – talk about the penny dropping (and at the wrong speed too).  For those of you viewing at home in black and white, John Peel was one of the most influential DJ’s in the UK, his tastes were, let’s just say eclectic, he knew no musical boundaries, and his playlists provided the soundtrack to the youth of millions of kids in the UK.  What made Peel brilliant was he knew his audience, knew his music and had the confidence to introduce new material (new to the audience, or new to the world, it didn’t matter.)  Ironically for this anecdote, it was Andy Kershaw or Mark Lamarr that played this role for me and given that unlike John, they haven’t yet shuffled off this mortal coil, their continued absence from the airwaves remains a national disgrace – can you fix it Jem? – (BTW – You need to follow Jem if you want the best curated experience of all that BBC radio has to offer).

So back to the point, why is all this radio nostalgia important?  Well think back to what I just said – curation works best when it is done with:

  1. good knowledge of the audience,
  2. good knowledge of the subject and
  3. the courage to introduce something new.

These are the very essence of discovery in the digital world and yet another signal about why, even with the best machine learning systems and algorithms, you still need the human/social signal to get it right. It’s easy to generate a list of “likes” of seemingly connected content, and it’s easy to play to the “herd”. What’s hard is to make it properly personal in a way that will resonate with the individual and take that concept of personalisation to the next level. 

This, my friends, is our challenge, if we are to truly get beyond relevancy, introduce trust and become the ultimate mechanism allowing the curation of the web for individuals, we have to figure out how to make search the enabler (note not owner) in how this happens.

Besides without this or Peel’s incredible talent, how am I ever going to find the next Rastabilly Skank