Posts Tagged ‘Big Data’

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).

Evolving Our Expectations of Privacy

Friday, May 4th, 2012

So I walk into my local pub, the landlord calls out “hey Dave! Your usual?” – I acknowledge him with a smile and nonchalantly walk up to the bar as he pours my drink; I am secretly overjoyed that I have finally achieved such status and recognition (although I barely spare a moment’s thought for the years of patronage and resulting family neglect that have afforded me such privilege.)

That kind of personalised service is something we as consumers strive to experience (come on, we all have a secret fantasy of playing Norm in your own local bar where “everyone knows your name”) and service providers have long chased the dream of creating that sense of “home”, where we know you, we know what you like and relax, you’re amongst friends here. (Don’t believe me? Watch any airline advert from the last 10 years and you’ll know exactly what I mean).

drinking manSo what if then, I walk into a different bar, in an unfamiliar town and the landlord does the same thing “hey Dave! Your usual?” do I offer him the same smile and nonchalance? Of course not, I turn around and run out of the bar, screaming in terror at the indignity of the invasion of my privacy.

But why should I be freaked out by that? After all, the landlord in the second bar has as much interest in offering me the personalised service as the landlord in the first pub. But what’s different is my _expectation_. If I had whiled away the hours on http://www.makeminemylocal.com availing landlords across the country with my photograph and drinking preferences so they can offer such a service, then I might reasonably expect such a friendly welcome, but the fact it is not expected is what freaks me out.

The lesson here for us as consumers (and for us as technology providers) is “no surprises” – if the consumer is (reasonably) surprised about the service or the usage of their data, then as a provider, you’ve probably got it wrong. You can tell me all you like that a specific bit of information about me is public information, but if it doesn’t feel like it to me then I’m going to have a hard time when somebody I wasn’t expecting uses it. It’s that expectation that’s almost as important as the permission to use the data, in the first bar, I’m OK with the data attribute “my favourite beer” being used. In the second bar, when it gets used I am unnerved not just because I never gave permission, but equally because I wasn’t expecting it.

I think this difference between the role of reasonable expectation and permission is often overlooked and will potentially catch us out as our culture (and expectations) about reasonable use evolve. We live in an increasingly personalised world, and our expectations and comfort with the mechanics of how that world is created are growing ever easier, we are freaked out initially by the “filter bubble” but then realise that actually, used properly (and transparently) it is a vital resource if we are to stand a chance of sorting the wheat from the chaff in a modern (big data) world.

I am reminded of a similar example from our recent past that shows how these evolutions can happen.  Do you remember when caller ID first appeared on our landline phones at home?  I do, mostly because I was incensed at the thought of _my_ number being displayed to whoever I called, even though I had requested to be “ex-directory”.  Fast forward a few years and you will find me refusing to answer the phone when the number is unknown or not recognised.  I no longer care about my number being displayed because my expectations have evolved to appreciate the value that the service provides.

But this is not just about always adapting or evolving to new developments and privacy boundaries.  Crucially, there needs to be some constructive tension to ensure that this evolution neither goes too far too quickly nor becomes unbalanced in terms of the value to the corporation versus the consumer. Given the complexity of the issue (and the difference context makes in the usage of the data in question) the law alone is not enough to do this, we need to ensure that a place exists where consumers, regulators, privacy advocates (like Privacy International, Big Brother Watch and others) and technology providers can come together to collectively and constructively debate the best way forward for all involved. I talked about this recently at an event on Location Privacy, and was reliably informed that there at least 5 different places (and counting) where this debate can and does happen. This is good but it needs to be better and more focused if we are to provide the best outcome for all of the stakeholders involved.

We all have a part to play in making sure this dialogue continues to happen – why don’t you join us?

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.