Thursday, August 7, 2014

Keeping up with the 2014 Trends: Big Data

This is the second midyear update on the CFM report TrendsWatch 2014. Last week I week I reviewed recent developments related to “For-profit For Good”—the rise of social entrepreneurs. This week I take a look at the last six months of news related to the “Geyser of Information”—how people are tapping the big data boom.

Overall Arc of the Trend
Up up up, and rapidly. On May 1 the White House issued its report on big data, concluding that “the explosion of data in today's world can be an unprecedented driver of social progress, but it also has the potential to eclipse basic civil rights and privacy protections.”  It’s clear that big data has the potential to create wealth for existing businesses as well as fueling the development of new companies, products and services. One tension quickly coming to the fore is the role government should play in regulating data collection to address those privacy concerns, as those actions could also interfere with productivity and job growth.

One way to track the potential business applications of big data is to follow the career of Watson, IBM’s cognitive computing software. I reported in TrendsWatch that after becoming the winningest Jeopardy champion of all time, Watson tackled medical diagnosis and stock market analysis. In the past few months, he (it? Her? Dang, we need a system of pronouns for genderless Artificial Intelligences) has donned a chef’s hat to generate “cognitive cooking,” creating new dishes by analyzing ~35,000 recipes and 1000 chemical flavor compounds. (You can apply to be a Beta tester for the resulting app.)

If cooking seems like a frivolous use of big data analytics, perhaps you will prefer Watson’s latest assignment: advising US military veterans on a range of decisions as they transition to civilian life. One of the key capabilities of programs like Watson is their ability to understand natural language questions and to improve their performance based on experience.  That’s a good thing, because when IBM and its corporate partner for the veterans project, USAA, tested “IBM Watson Engagement Advisor” they found that “The kind of questions that [veterans a]re asking Watson are the kind of questions they would ask their friend or the sergeant at the separation office…things like, 'where's the best place to live for a veteran,' or 'how do I translate my service history into a resume,' or 'how can I pay for college.'" And the news keeps rolling in: just yesterday I read that Watson is trying on the role of business consultant, acting as a personal confident to CEOs.

For my speculations on how Watson’s capabilities could be harnessed by museums see the CFM Futurist Friday post “Meet Watson, Your Personal Museum Learning Agent.” How could natural language search capabilities, machine learning and data analytics help match users with museum resources? 

Recommended Read
The Sharing Economy Goes Behind the Counter, from StreetFight Magazine. I know it sounds like this should be tagged under another of our 2014 trends, about collaborative consumption, but bear with me. The article examines the impact of cloud computing (sharing data servers—hence the title) on small businesses. The major point of the essay is that cloud-based software enables small businesses to compete with bigger companies by giving them access to flexible, affordable, powerful web-based tools and services.

What intrigued me was the commentary on benchmarking and customer profiles. It mentions one company, Shopkeep (a maker of tablet point-of-sale systems) that wants to aggregate the data from its users to give small businesses access to the kind of benchmarking data that used to be the sole province of big companies. It also mentions the aspiration of Fivestars, a customer loyalty program gearing up to compete with services like Belly, Mogl and Perka, to mine the data of program members in order to create individual user profiles about behavior and preferences. This information would enable the merchants using Fivestars to create responsive, personalized services.

I’ve had many people ask how small museums could tap into the “big data” boom. Maybe the examples presented by Shopkeep and Fivestars offer one approach. Are there cloud-based point-of-sale programs, or interpretive apps, that contain and could potentially merge, crunch and analyze the data of many small museum clients? Could we create a “universal museum user profile” the public can use to share data with the museums they frequent, so that museums can use their history of preferences and behavior to personalize the user experience?

To Add to Your Scanning Feed
@IBMWatson on Twitter, where you can keep up with the rapidly accelerating career of the digital face of cognitive computing.

Related Articles (most previously featured in CFM’s free weekly e-newsletter, Dispatches from the Future of Museums):

Is Big Data Spreading Inequality?
The New York Times

Social media companies depend on selling information about their users’ clicks and purchases to data brokers who match ads to the most receptive individuals. But the Federal Trade Commission and the White House have called for legislation that would inform consumers about the data collected and sold to companies, warning of analytics that have “the potential to eclipse longstanding civil rights protections.” Does the collection of data by companies threaten consumers’ civil rights?    This edition of the NYT's excellent "Room for Debate" forum includes essays by thought leaders from the Future of Privacy Forum, the Open Technology Institute and Princeton among others.

White House big data report earns praise, skepticism
Information Week
A White House report on big data released May 1 concludes that the explosion of data in today's world can be an unprecedented driver of social progress, but it also has the potential to eclipse basic civil rights and privacy protections. The report drew praise from business and technology groups for its grasp of how big data analytics could improve education and health care, uncover wasteful government spending and help with the nation's continuing economic recovery. But those same groups cautioned that government attempts to regulate data collection could interfere with productivity and job growth. 

Measuring the world's emotions using Twitter and Amazon's cloud
There are some things that just weren’t possible before the world wide web and cloud computing, and a recently launched emotion-quantification project called “We Feel” is one of them. The project, which is a partnership between Australia’s Black Dog Institute and its Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, is analyzing every English-language Twitter post around the world in order to determine how people are feeling. Using data from Gnip, the social-media data feed that Twitter recently acquired, We Feel gauges where tweets range on a spectrum from “joy” to “fear” (as well as “surprise”) and then breaks them down at a more-granular level (e.g., from “joy” to “zest” to “invigorated”). It also captures metadata on the countries from which tweets are coming, the sex of the person doing the tweeting and the timestamp of the tweet.

These smart umbrellas measure rainfall data
Fast CoExist
Even in a wired world, some simple data is still surprisingly hard to get — like how much it rains. The basic rain gauge has been around for hundreds of years, and it's still a standard tool used by agencies like the National Weather Service to help predict flooding and monitor droughts. But gauges are expensive to maintain, and there are only a few thousand in the entire world that can actually report data in real time. That's not enough for an accurate picture of the weather. A team of Dutch scientists wants to use the crowd instead, by turning umbrellas into mini weather-monitoring stations. Every time it rains, smart umbrellas would use sensors to detect falling drops, and then use Bluetooth to send a report to a smartphone app. As people walk around with umbrellas throughout a city during a storm, each app would send in data to a central system where meteorologists could use it to come up with better predictions.

How consumers can use big data
The Wall Street Journal
A new wave of consumer applications is putting big data at everyone's fingertips. Large organizations have harnessed the power of data analytics for some time. But consumer services are finding more ways to use business intelligence to benefit individuals. One thing that makes this all possible is the growing availability of large public and private information sources. Government agencies and companies like Facebook Inc., Google Inc. and Twitter Inc. offer APIs — application programming interfaces — that allow other software makers to access and use their data. Even as consumers worry about the effect on their privacy of all the personal information that is widely shared, many are finding ways to benefit from new, readily accessible, data-rich services.

Big data goes to school
Public schools nationwide are taking a cue from business, harnessing big data to improve student outcomes, help school districts make better hiring decisions and help governments use their education dollars more effectively. The results may be more successful students, better teacher retention and more finely tuned administration policies.

The IBM Food Truck: Powered by the SoftLayer cloud
Thoughts On Cloud
Among the sea of booths and demos on the expo floor at IBM Pulse 2014, a culinary revolution is happening — and the cloud is its catalyst. It's called the Cognitive Kitchen, and the fruit of its labor, the IBM Food Truck, is delighting palates while hinting to a world of possibilities. Chef James Briscione and his Institute of Culinary Education team are working with IBM to tap into cognitive computing, and in the process inventing some eyebrow-raising recipes. The flavor combinations are often bold and unprecedented. ♦ "Cognitive computing" is being brought to bear on many areas of endeavor here-to-fore regarded as the preserve of creative intelligence. Today it's food — what next?

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