Category Archives: Data

Robo-Collie, it’ll never work…or will it?

The news has recently been bleeting on about some scientific work done by Swansea University, suggesting that robots could replace sheepdogs to herd sheep. Of course this isn’t exactly what Swansea are suggesting, but just for a moment let us address this. The researchers have used GPS data to show how mathematically the sheepdog and the shepherd work together to herd a whole group of sheep successfully. Their conclusion is that there are two simple rules to it and that is that. But the main problem with this conclusion, as accurate as it may be, is that it is based on watching successful herding and not on watching how that successful herding was actually accomplished.

Having grown up around farms, I am quite aware of the tremendous skill and determination required to run a farm. Watching a sheepdog working, changing direction on a sixpence simply on a whistle command, is quite awe inspiring, especially when the effect of this on a sheep herd is instantaneous as well. This duet, or in some cases trio (with two dogs), work in perfect harmony to coerce a group of herd animals into a pen only just big enough to hold them. But the thing that comes across when watching this wonderful spectacle is not the mathematics of the movements, it is the skill of the animals and owner at reading the herd, in being agile and able to react on a moment to control what could otherwise result in a breakout.

Watching on from a mathematical point of view, it is no doubt possible to define the rules that were applied to make this well oiled machine work. But that is no more useful than defining how a stream may, over thousands of years, cut a course through  valley, only to be wrong because you didn’t realise there was a weakness in a line of rock half way down and this caused a completely different route. You see, by nature, sheep are unpredictable and so the dog and farmer control this through their experience and ability to judge and read the herd, rather than by just applying a rule and knowing it will work every time.

Now, the research is not actually denying this. What they have done is to use the rules observed from herding to suggest that robots could be used in other situations where here are large groups of people involved; crowd control or oil spills are the examples in the article. And this idea is actually very fascinating.

The Internet of Everything is the idea that any system will be ‘on the net’ and therefore measurable. The principle is that we not only collect the data from ‘everything’ but we also then interpret and react to it. This is an example of that. Scientists are looking at how one group, in this case a herd of sheep, react to herding and then applying this to another situation where a group may need to be herded in a similar way.

Of course the news reporters translate this into a small scale example, the person stuck in a dark room who can then be saved by a robot guide. That is small fry. So let’s extrapolate this into something rather more relevant.

Over the last couple of weeks the great British countryside has pretty much ground to a halt as millions of holiday-goers edge their way down the motorway to try and gain themselves their four inch plot of seaside heaven. The weight of traffic on one or two arterial roads is simply too much and so it takes eight hours to make a journey that on any other day might take half that. In the Internet of Everything world the cars will be herded, in real time, down the most suitable roads. They can be assigned a route based on availability, weight of traffic, capacity of the road, destination of other cars vs their car, the need to stop for food, water, a wee. All of these variables will be calculated by the vehicle, which will most likely to be doing all the driving anyway, and the roads will stay moving.

This is where the world is heading. Whether it be large groups all going to the same destination, or individuals trying to get somewhere whilst avoiding the crowd, it will be possible to use live data and mathematically rules to shepherd them in the most optimal routes. And that will be the power of big data as well. Take another salient example, the spread of the Ebola virus in Africa. Using data obtained using non-invasive medical devices, a patient will be able to be diagnosed in minutes, their presence will then be known ‘on the net’ and quarantine protocols updated accordingly. The ability to track the movement of the disease and then apply the rules we already know work will be much improved.

The power of data is impressive, and it will continue to impress us even more as we realise the potential for it’s use in the future. But an important part of using data is interpreting it in the right ways. The application of ‘intelligence’ to data, and not just generalising that one plus one must always equal two, will be how the Internet of Everything changes the world. Because the reality is that one plus one does not always equal two, sometimes it makes a window too!


From Russia, with data…

Recently (Source: BBC News) it was reported that Russia are seeking to pass new laws requiring data about Russian citizens to be stored within the country, rather than in datacentres in the United States “where it can be hacked and given to criminals” (quoting MP Vadim Dengin).

At first glance this seems to be a relatively ridiculous stance to take, flimsily disguised as an attempt to protect the data of Russian citizens when actually many skeptics believe this is more about control which could lead to Russia becoming the next country with an iron-curtain firewall – much like China has operated for years. A key question is how will they enforce this in any way that would benefit Russian people?

Irrelevant of the motivations behind this move, there are potential implications for digital practitioners that need to be thought about going forward. For a start, if there is any possibility that a Russian is going to use your application and requires storing any data then that database will need to be stored in Russia. A shrewd move if Russia plans on creating datacentres, but from a practical point of view would the rest of the world want their data stored in Russia?

One option would be to develop the system so that anyone based in Russia has their data stored in a Russian version of the database. But let’s be honest, it isn’t really practical to go down this route. Where does it end? Do you have a database for each country that requires one?

At the other end of the spectrum is the consideration that you have to rule Russian customers out of your experience if they have to do any sort of account creation. For some sectors that may not be a concern. The Google’s, YouTube’s and Amazon’s of the world may decide this is a risk worth taking. But what about the investment sector, for example? Russia has a lot of wealth and ruling them out could be a big problem. Similarly, research becomes a lot more difficult. For an entity trying to undertake surveys Russia may be a key demographic but this may well rule them out of being included.

What is the reality? We think that this is likely to be a very hard thing for Russia to police and most likely they really are only targeting big companies. The only real way to enforce this is that Russian internet access becomes locked down in a utilitarian move to “protect data”, but which would actually be severely curtailing Russian freedoms online. If this is the case then any company serious about having a presence online in Russia would have to have a Russian version specifically for the purpose. Instead, what will most likely happen is that businesses will turn their backs on Russia and so we won’t need to worry anyway.

Shooting the messenger – a right to forget the point!

An EU court has today backed the right for people to request that Google must amend some search results, in what is becoming known as the “right to be forgotten”. This story, reported on the BBC News website, raises some interesting questions and also possible paves the way for a world wide web police, for which Google must logically be placed.

But first lets look at the court case, which presents a few problems and, much like the “cookie law”, has got quite a few people excited despite having hold of the wrong end of a very large stick. For one, the EU Justice Commissioner, Viviane Reding, said in a post on Facebook that it is a “clear victory for the protection of personal data of Europeans”. I can’t help but feel she has massively missed the point here. Google themselves make the salient point; They do not control data, they only offer links to information freely available on the internet.

What Viviane is failing to see is that this ruling doesn’t solve any problem at all. If people want misleading, inaccurate or otherwise unfair information about themselves to be removed from the internet then asking Google to remove it from search results doesn’t remove it from the internet, it merely stops it being shown in Google. The information itself is still out there as a source for people to find. And you might argue that if it isn’t shown in the most popular search engine (and indeed website) in the world then that solves the problem, but if you believe that you’re probably a bit short sighted. Why? Well quite simply because the online world is changing.

An example of this change is this article, which talks about how the younger generation are consuming the internet through apps rather than browsers. This is significant because the web is moving towards an information warehouse rather than website based approach, where your app of choice will be used to retrieve this information. If this is indeed where the net ends up then Google will no longer be the majority search engine, and therefore the information that Google has obediently hidden will be found again. Not to mention that if the actual content is not removed, it only takes a couple of people to find it and share it and then it is all over the net.

So, what is this ruling actually doing? Well it is shooting the messenger for the ‘crimes’ of others. Google is suffering from being the biggest name in the web. It suits the cause of the advocates, politicians and legal personnel to aim the gun directly at a big name rather than this court case disappearing into obscurity once the actual offending website is dealt with. More to the point, like the cookie law, it will get a lot of normal people who don’t 100% understand how the web actually works riled up and support some piece of law being passed that doesn’t actually solve the problem, just covers it with a plaster for a while.

But there is something else going on here as well, something which many people have seen coming for a while. In placing the responsibility with Google (and presumably other search engines, although none have currently been mentioned) to manage and control this content they have now effectively asked them to start policing the internet. As there are vagaries around exactly when a person can validly ask for content to be removed, there will need to be someone making judgements on what is and isn’t allowed and Google are best placed to do this. They have the biggest reach, the widest data access and the best understanding of content monitoring and assessment. Another perceived advantage is that Google are agnostic of governments and institutions, meaning they are well placed to make impartial judgements (in theory).

Whether or not Google does end up being this web police or not, this court case is a line in the sand. To date the internet is largely uncontrolled and almost anything can be uploaded. But this court case has moved a step closer to a situation where either proactively or retrospectively content is going to be monitored and potentially restricted or even removed. The age of the free internet, the ultimate safe harbour of freedom of speech, may well be coming to an end. Whether this is a good or bad thing however, is a whole different question.

In the meantime, if you see something about yourself online that you don’t think should be there, don’t ask Google to remove it, ask the actual website. That will be much more effective in actually removing the content.

Becoming Immortal – the digital tattoo/scar!

In this blog post I want explore a theme that I have touched on before and that a lot of other people in the industry are covering as well – the idea of our own digital presence. Recently I watched a very good TED talk by Juan Enriquez, where he briefly looks at the idea that our digital presence, the information that exists about us on the internet, is like a tattoo. This is an interesting (and very relevant) idea for two reasons; firstly that the perception of tattoos is varied and in many cases negative, and secondly tattoos are largely (although not entirely) permanent and therefore the choice to have one is something that the person then has to live with.

Juan Enriquez uses an example whereby using face recognition technology it would be possible to instantly download data about that person from all manner of sites (Facebook, Twitter, Blog sites, GPS, SMS, etc. etc.) before you had so much as said hello to that person. As he says, there is an instant commercial application to this; a shop could find out all the information about a customer and alert a sales person to then promote a special offer that they know meets the persons interests and needs. You could see this approach as either negative and intrusive or positive and convenient, but there is a very interesting comparison here to the “Cookie Law” issues that arose in the last couple of years. The problem that many people will see with this is that assumptions are being made about you that are not based on getting to know you personally, and you are being treated differently because of that. But the opposite could also be argued – that they are getting to know you so that they make your experience more relevant.

The biggest issue, as Enriquez correctly identifies, is that like a tattoo our digital presence in this case is built up of data about ourselves that is fixed. It is possible to change that data over time but because it is in ‘the cloud’ whatever data they see about us is what they will use to decide how to engage with us at that moment. Unlike a tattoo though, which a person decides upon (hopefully with great thought), the data about us is more than likely to be more than just what we decide it will be. It will be made up of data from all sorts of sources, some of which will not be controlled by us and may be misleading. Take a situation where someone goes for a job interview and the company uses this same technique to perform a covert assessment of attitudes and aptitude before talking to them. Their name may have been mentioned, with or without their knowledge, on a forum involving a debate about a hot political issue. The company may then use this information to make a judgement about the candidate without knowing the context of the forum or even if that person is aware of their link to it.

Another point that Juan makes, which is very relevant, is that tattoos are permanent and when it comes to digital tattoos this is important both now and after we have gone. There are plenty of cases where people have lost their jobs because they have been foolish enough to write something derogatory, confidential or abusive on a social media site. That foolishness is in the cloud and being syndicated to potentially lots of other sites, so deleting it from the original one won’t necessarily help. This mistake may stop that person getting a similar job in the future as well. Mud sticks!

This is only going to get more and more important to bear in mind. If our digital presence is going to be used to research us then we need to be sure that what appears in their is something that we are happy with. We will never be able to completely control it, but making sure that we don’t assume anonymity because we are sat at a computer is pivotal. A couple of years ago I experienced an embryonic version of this in a job interview. I has listed on my LinkedIn profile that I am a freelance photographer, because I saw LinkedIn as a place to show my varying skills as well as my current job role. In the interview I was subjected to the Spanish Inquisition over this decision and they used it as a basis for concern about my long term viability, on the assumption that I would want to eventually become a full time photographer. Unfortunately they made this assumption without first asking my view on this, so they didn’t understand how I was using LinkedIn and what my intentions were.

So what about the good side of a digital tattoo. Well there are some very real advantages and the near future, let alone the distant future, will rely on these more and more. We already have near field communication (NFC) technology that allows us to pay for things using our phone, without taking our phone out of our pocket. And the phone we carry around now is already a portable persona for ourselves. As we store more and more information on these devices they will start to be used more and more as a way of us passing our information seamlessly to the environment around us, allowing us to suppress things we are not interested in and engage with things that we are interested in. The idea of being able to personalise not just the online world, but also the physical world, by effectively putting our digital key into the lock means that we will be able to engage with things in a whole new way. Whether this is the dashboard of our car personalising the layout to us when we get in it, or it is checking in for a flight by simply walking through the airport doors.

When I got a tattoo I surprised quite a lot of people. Some made negative comments, some were very surprised. One particularly stuck in my mind, a comment put on Facebook that said “Well, you’ve scared yourself for life now sunshine”. Whether tongue in cheek or not, that is a very interesting way of looking at it, and relevant to this subject. There is a saying in IT, “you put rubbish in, you get rubbish out”, I think it is a better way of looking at it. My tattoo, which is on my back, took a long time to design and has a lot of personal meaning to me. I am proud of it and it is anything but a scar – but it is permanent and it says a lot about me. But a lot of people have tattoos that are not very well thought through and do become scars. They also say a lot about that person, not necessarily now but certainly at the time when they got the tattoo in the first place.

We need to think about our digital presence – our record – in the same way. Will it be a permanent symbol of what you are, or will it be a scar that comes back to haunt you? The world is only going to get more complex and data more entwined. My advice is make sure you don’t do anything stupid that might mean your digital tattoo is more of a scar than a symbol.

Google+, well it is all a bit anti-social really isn’t it?

Back in June 2011 Google launched their social platform Google+, to great fanfare. Typically there was immediately the usual jumping of ships and people posting hilariously scalding messages about Facebook on their profile,  proclaiming that they would be leaving for the greener pastures of Google and never coming back.

At the time, like many, I was quite dismissive about Google+ going into social media. Whether it was accurate or not, the apparent aspiration to take on Facebook at their own game seemed both foolish and unobtainable to me and I when I took a look at Google’s platform I couldn’t actually see any benefits over and above Facebook. The problem is that I couldn’t see any real attraction for most users and Google’s offering was a regression from the established Facebook functionality.

The most telling thing for these sites though is whether commercial entities try and adopt them or not. Facebook is a nut that many big companies have been trying to crack for years. And they still try, because there is undoubtedly opportunities there for those who approach it in the right way. But what of Google+, how is it fairing nearly 2 years on?

Most significantly it would appear that many of the big corporate names on Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest have fallen at the first hurdle with Google+. As eConsultancy write, there seems to be a lot less effort poured into Google+ pages by these big companies. In fact some, McDonald’s being the biggest example, haven’t done anything on their Google page since they created it! So why is this significant? Well my view would be that watching the behaviour of the corporates on these platforms tends to offer a window into the platform itself. No one has really cracked commercial return on investment on social media yet, but the fact that the big names poor effort into some but not offers does indicate which ones they see as being significant players. In the case of Google+ it would seem the consensus is that it is not.

The reality is that we, as users, only have so much time to spend on social sites. The idea that Google+ and Facebook would end up sharing the market was, to be frank, rather rediculous. Facebook’s massive hold on the social market was always going to be a telling factor and most people are simply not interested in the upheaval of moving themselves across to another site when all their friends and content are already on Facebook. The irony for Google is that if there had been a mass agreement in the user base to move then it would likely have shut the doors at Facebook, but as users we like consistency and ease of use – even if we like to moan about Facebook and their adhoc changes. This view would seem to be supported by the fact that all those people who grandly marched off to Google+ never to be seen again have all slowly slunk back, tails between their legs.

Google+ claims to have 500 million users currently, but I wonder how many of those are active on the platform. In the end, my view is that Google’s core business is about data. I don’t believe they were ever stupid enough to think they were going to takeover Facebook’s place in the market, so there must have been another behind moving into the social space. I have nothing to back up this assertion, but imagine how powerful they could be if they had the ability to use personas as yet another way of personalizing search? If they had a way of identifying the type of person you are based on in depth research, through a social media site, then they would be able to sell advertising space that targeted not just search terms and locations, but the type of person as well. Is this why Google+ was created, as a persona research method? Only Google will know the answer to that one.

Why the long face?

So what is the big issue really? So what if a bit of horse has turned up in some burgers, the French eat horse after all. Well at the nub of it, yet again, is trust. The major issue with the horse meat fiasco is that there is uncertainty about where this meat came into the system and therefore issues around the quality and whether it is fit for consumption. As consumers, we put our trust in the providers of these products and assume that they are assuring that the quality of that food is as it should be. Critically, we assume that what the packet says it contains is actually what it contains.

This situation is just the latest in a long line of ‘let downs’ for the consumer, and they occur in every sector. The worry for the food industry is that this could be just the tip of the iceberg and once people lose their trust in a brand it is very hard to restore that trust. In digital the situation is very similar and our responsibilities to our users is exactly the same. Users instill trust in us when they interact with brands and with online assets, assuming that we are being responsible in the way we operate.

I have previously written about the EU “cookie law” and the principle that at its heart it is about trust. This recent news in the food sector highlights basic trust issues that we need to consider, because as digital practitioners cookies are just the tip of the iceberg. Take, for example, app development. If you download a new app and it has no location based features then when you load it up you wouldn’t expect to be asked if the app can log your location. Similarly, if you are using a navigation app then you wouldn’t expect the app to need your personal details in order to work. For a lot of people this is a very real imposition because the app, for no particular reason, is collecting personal information. The immediate question for a savvy user is “why do you need that information, how are you going to use it?” and the resulting response is likely to be a lack of trust, suspicion and possibly even deleting the app.

Storing data is another area of real concern for users. As I mentioned above, the first issue is asking for ‘unnecessarily’ data about someone. The second is how that data is being used and if it is being stored securely. The media is filled with stories about data disks being left on trains, people hacking into websites and stealing information and so called experts assuring us that data is never secure. Whilst this media attention is unhelpful, it highlights how much of an issue the normal person considers this to be. Our responsibility is to take the right steps to make sure that our builds are as secure as possible, including robust testing. It is also our responsibility to make sure we only store the data that is actually needed and that we explain, clearly and simply, why we need this data and what we do with it. It is also important to give users the chance to remove their data as well. Not least, this complies with the data protection act, but more importantly it shows a two way trust.

It is paramount that we show respect to our users and in return they will engage with our brands. Trust needs to be at the heart of everything that we do, whether it is communicating with them, the way we design our online presence for them, or in the way that we treat them and their data. Without trust there is no loyalty in a customer and that will ultimately mean it is harder to make them spend their money with us. Instead, we shuold cultivate good and trusted relationships with our customers and ten they will become advocates of our brands.