Posts Tagged ‘Social’

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).

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.

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?

Moving the Hive with Social Buzz

Friday, June 3rd, 2011

The other night I was sat watching Winnie the Pooh with my son for about the 453rd time – to be fair, I had made him watch one of the great cinema classics of our time the night before (The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension – obviously) and now it was his turn to choose.  Anyhow, while Pooh was thinking about honey, I was thinking about bees.  As they coalesced to create that comedy swarm formation that is the cliché of so many cartoons, I sat there wondering if bees actually did that in real life, and you know what?  They do.

Bee2aThe day after watching Pooh, Tigger et al bounce their way through the Hundred Acre Wood I came across a wonderful study about how honey bee colonies move around from year to year, finding the absolute best place for them to live for the coming season.  It’s the way that they make the decision about where’s the best place to live that’s really interesting and ultimately of most use to us when we think about what makes good social engagement work and how contrary the “hive” decision making process is to what you would expect, when you realise that the decision on where to move the colony to is not based on consensus and compromise, but is actually simply about quorum or critical mass.

Bee1aAs late spring approaches, the queen and about 10,000 of her subjects, set off to find a new home and re-establish the colony.  In order to do this, they leave the hive and form a swarm.  From there a much smaller group of scouts (a few hundred) head out and look around for suitable locations (NOTE: at no point do the bees _ever_ enlist the help of an estate agent which also says a lot about the incredible intelligence of the insect mind).  What the scouts are looking for are about twelve or more suitable locations for the new hive. One by one the scouts return and communicate with the swarm about what they’ve found.  (If you’re really interested in this, the way they do this is called a Waggle Dance – which, as I have now learned, is pretty incredible and not, as I previously thought, just an odd name for a rather splendid beer.) 

But the really interesting thing for us, is not only _how_ the decision gets made, but also _where_ it gets made.    You would think that each scout would return to the swarm, report back, have a long debate with the queen and her advisers, send out for pizza and beer and then decide (hey, it’s how it would work for me if I was a bee.)  Actually, it is the activity of the scouts while they are out on patrol that makes the decision which is accepted and acted upon without question by the rest of the colony.  It’s a question of quorum vs consensus really.  You would expect the hive mind to be all about consensus, i.e. “we all agree this is the right thing to do” whereas in reality it is simply the first potential new home to reach a quorum or critical mass (in this case 15 or more scouts present at one time), once this is reached, the decision is simply taken as made and the colony moves to its new home.

Bee3aBy now, you’re probably wondering what the point of all this is besides an interesting lesson in entomology, well, in my mind, what happens for the bees is actually what happens for us when we try to “activate” social media campaigns or engagement.  There’s been a lot written about the hive mind and the collective intelligence of the crowd and trust me, I am not jumping on that bandwagon (not now anyway).  What I am really trying to point out that your job in creating “buzz” (oh, the irony) is _not_ about the majority, or even the queens or the “leaders” of those colonies.  No, this is simply about establishing enough critical mass with the scouts. 

Internet users are relatively fickle beasts (you want evidence – just ask MySpace). As a result, I firmly believe your success in gaining “influence” or “reach” (however you decide to measure them) comes from engaging a series of smaller, more manageable niche audiences and exciting and enthusing them about you, your brand, your story etc.  I think this requires a bit more creative effort in the short term (to identify and create relevance with these individual swarms/niches) but over the longer term requires a hell of a lot less “muscle” (financial or otherwise) than would be required if you try move the hive en masse.

You don’t need to move the entire colony to get the volume, you just need to enchant individuals to build up that quorum – oh yeah, that and a pretty awesome waggle dance…

The other side of social search

Wednesday, May 4th, 2011

listenI have a friend, (hard to believe I know, but it’s true) who is the only person I have ever met that can accurately predict whether or not I will like a particular band, album or piece of music. He sends me links and information on bands I’ve never heard of and would likely never discover and makes accurate predictions on the extent to which I will like them even though he knows I’ve never heard of them, never mind listened to them.

It’s a great service for me and saves me no end of time (but equally costs me a lot of money, because when he’s right, he’s absolutely right and I end up buying the entire back catalogue) but what’s really interesting about this, is that it represents a principle of a very different type of social search to the one we’ve been discussing recently around the aggregation of “sentiment” (Facebook “likes” in our case) around a given topic.

The importance of this new approach is that it deals with the assumption that “your friends are like you” that is implicit in the current method of introducing the social signal to search. Although at a high level, this assumption may be broadly right, at a more granular level it’s often completely wrong. My social network is made up of friends, family, colleagues (old and new) and a few other random acquaintances – to make the assumption that all these people are “like” me is, generically, probably true, but at a more specific level it is hideously wrong – for example, one of my brothers supports West Ham United and listens to the Smiths. Not following WHU is probably self-explanatory, but like Mitch, I must confess I never went through a Smiths phase. But I digress, my point is that just because someone in my network likes these things, does that mean I do? Of course not, generically you might infer that our connection may imply I like football and 80’s indie music but to be explicit about it would just be silly.

A new piece of research from our friends in MSR Cambridge is focusing on this principle, using a technique called “prediction extraction” to solicit opinions from friends as to whether they think the individual in question would like the item in question before they have even experienced it.

This approach is based on the observation that “although your friends are not you and may not have the same tastes as you, they are likely the people who actually know you best”.

You can read the detail of the approach here but essentially it offers a number of advantages, primarily around the accuracy, quality and coverage that the harnessing of this tacit knowledge brings, the real trick however is how to extract this information in a way that is easy and rewarding for the contributor and seamless for the consumer.

Predicting your friends opinions is nothing new (Mum _always_ knew best, right?, and it augments rather than replaces the “wisdom of the crowds”, but it does offer a new way of providing accurate, insightful predictions around the relevancy of a given topic or item to the individual. Going forward we’re going to need a range of these techniques if we are to truly humanise the way search provides us the answers we’re looking for.

My friend and music sensei doesn’t like the same music as me (can you believe he only has _one_ Men They Couldn’t Hang album?) but he does know me well, and he loves music – this combination alone could save HMV’s fortunes (and likely bankrupt me!).

How to launch products using social media

Thursday, March 31st, 2011

I need to preface this email with some disclaimers:

  1. I like Guy Kawasaki – I was enchanted by his approach to technology evangelism with Apple over 20 years ago and have been following him ever since.  (For balance, I should note that other tech evangelists are also available).
  2. He’s just released a new book which he is obviously out marketing. I’ve read it and think it’s great (there’s a copy on my desk if you want to read it – it’s easy going, you can read it in a couple of hours).

enchantment-ana-b-125x125-06So with that out of the way, I saw this yesterday and thought it was interesting, it’s essentially a list of all the different ways he used social to market his new book.

Ignoring the fact this is about a book launch and instead focusing in on the principles and I take away the following:

  1. Social is more than just “social”, Twitter and FB are just means of moving the message, they are not the message itself  – without great supporting collateral they’re worthless.
  2. Social costs money.  In addition to the usual book launch publicity costs, he advises a spend of over $45k (plus whatever he sent on PPC) on what he lists as “social” activities.
  3. Know your influencers and scale up to enchant them.  Guy’s lucky, he has a pool of 22,000 bloggers engaged in his AllTop network to choose from as influencers.  The key point is he _didn’t_ choose a subset based on an arbitrary measure of influence, he just selected all of them.  Big bucks, but big pay off.
  4. Engage the peripheral audience – in addition to the “push” techniques, he also created a series of engagement experiences that “pulled” the audience to him, (e.g. photo competition, quiz etc).
  5. Empower the audience to spread your word – Guy’s final move is to create frictionless ways (badges, schtikers, wallpapers etc) for people to share their  love for his product (“love” is a bit strong but you know what I mean). 

I know there’s a lot here and we can’t all be as well placed as Guy Kawasaki in terms of being able to activate people, but I think many organisations really need to think differently about what social truly means to them.  It isn’t free, it isn’t easy, but when you get it right, it can really pay off.

Social Signals and Search

Tuesday, February 15th, 2011

Last week, I was lucky enough to get some time and present at one of the Social Media Week London events. It was a great opportunity to meet with a diverse range of people and organisations, all looking for better ways to use Social Media across their business and their lives.

It was timely too, as we’ve been doing a lot of work about the importance of Social, especially when it comes to search.

What’s key in all of this, is the understanding that Social search is absolutely _not_ what it says on the tin – this is not just about “finding people” and searching Twitter archives, but is in fact much more about how you can use the power of the social “signal” to make searching a much better, more trusted experience.

Watch the presentation to find out why:

http://www.theenvisioners.com/wp-content/uploads/podcasts/SocialSignal.flv

The presentation is also available as a handy download for your favourite mobile device – Social Signals in Search (MP4)

You can find the slides here – Social Signals and Search (Slides)