Artificial Intelligence Apps for Business are Approaching a Tipping Point

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“Algorithmic Contaminations”, Image by Derek Gavey

There have been many points during the long decades of the development of business applications using artificial intelligence (AI) when it appeared that The Rubicon was about to be crossed. That is, this technology often seemed to be right on the verge of going mainstream in global commerce. Yet it has still to achieve a pervasive critical mass despite the vast resources and best intentions behind it.

Today, with the advent of big data and analytics and their many manifestations¹ spreading across a wide spectrum of industries, AI is now closer than ever to reaching such a tipping point. Consultant, researcher and writer Brad Power makes a timely and very persuasive case for this in a highly insightful and informative article entitled Artificial Intelligence Is Almost Ready for Business, posted on the Harvard Business Review site on March 19, 2015. I will summarize some of the key points, add some links and annotations, and pose a few questions.

Mr. Power sees AI being brought to this threshold by the convergence of rapidly increasing tech sophistication, “smarter analytics engines, and the surge in data”. Further adding to this mix is the incursion and growth of the Internet of Things (Iot), better means to analyze “unstructured” data, and the extensive categorization and tagging of data. Furthermore,  there is the dynamic development and application of smarter algorithms to  discern complex patterns in data and to generate increasingly accurate predictive models.

So, too, does machine learning² play a highly significant role in AI applications. It can be used to generate “thousands of models a week”. For example, a model premised upon machine learning can be used to select which ads should be placed on what websites within milliseconds in order to achieve the greatest effectiveness in reaching an intended audience. DataXu is one of the model-generating firms in this space.

Tom Davenport, a professor at Babson College and an analytics expert³, was one of the experts interviewed by Power for this article. To paraphrase part of his quote, he believes that AI and machine learning would be useful adjuncts to the human analysts (often referred to as “quants”4). Such living experts can far better understand what goes into and comes out of a model than a machine learning app alone. In turn, these people can persuade business managers to apply such “analytical insights” to actual business processes.

AI can also now produce greater competitive efficiencies by closing the time gap between analyzing vast troves of data at high speeds and decision-making on how to apply the results.

IBM, one of the leading integrators of AI, has recently invested $1B in the creation of their Watson Group, dedicated to exploring and leveraging commercial applications for Watson technology. (X-ref to the December 1, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled Possible Futures for Artificial Intelligence in Law Practice for a previous mention and links concerning Watson.) This AI technology is currently finding significant applications in:

  • Health Care: Due to Watson’s ability to process large, complex and dynamic quantities of text-based data, in turn, it can “generate and evaluate hypotheses”. With specialized training, these systems can then make recommendation about treating particular patients. A number of elite medical teaching institutions in the US are currently engaging with IBM to deploy Watson to “better understand patients’ diseases” and recommend treatments.
  • Finance: IBM is presently working with 45 companies on app including “digital virtual agents” to work with their clients in a more “personalized way”; a “wealth advisor” for financial planning5; and on “risk and compliance management”. For example, USAA provides financial services to active members of the military services and to their veterans. Watson is being used to provide a range of financial support functions to soldiers as they move to civilian status.
  • Startups: The company has designated $100 million for introducing Watson into startups. An example is WayBlazer which, according to its home page, is “an intelligence search discovery system” to assist travelers throughout all aspects of their trips. This online service is designed to be an easy-to-use series of tools to provide personalized answers and support for all sort of journeys. At the very bottom of their home page on the left-hand side are the words “Powered by IBM Watson”.

To get a sense of the trends and future of AI in business, Power spoke with the following venture capitalists who are knowledgeable about commercial AI systems:

  • Mark Gorenberg, Managing Director at Zetta Venture Partners which invests in big data and analytics startups, believes that AI is an “embedded technology”. It is akin to adding “a brain”  – – in the form of cognitive computing – – to an application through the use of machine learning.
  • Promod Haque, senior managing partner at Norwest Venture Partners, believes that when systems can draw correlations and construct models on their own, and thus labor is reduced and better speed is achieved. As a result, a system such as Watson can be used to automate analytics.
  • Manoj Saxena, a venture capitalists (formerly with IBM), sees analytics migrating to the “cognitive cloud”, a virtual place where vast amounts of data from various sources will be processed in such a manner to “deliver real-time analytics and learning”. In effect, this will promote smoother integration of data with analytics, something that still remains challenging. He is an investor in a startup called Cognitive Scale working in this space.

My own questions (not derived through machine learning), are as follows:

  • Just as Watson has begun to take root in the medical profession as described above, will it likewise begin to propagate across the legal profession? For a fascinating analysis as a starting point, I highly recommend 10 Predictions About How IBM’s Watson Will Impact the Legal Profession, by Paul Lippe and Daniel Katz, posted on the ABA Journal website on October 4, 2014. I wonder whether the installation of Watson in law offices take on other manifestations that cannot even be foreseen until the systems are fully integrated and running? Might the Law of Unintended Consequences also come into play and produce some negative results?
  • What other professions, industries and services might also be receptive to the introduction of AI apps that have not even considered it yet?
  • Does the implementation of AI always produce reductions in jobs or is this just a misconception? Are there instances where it could increase the number of jobs in a business? What might be some of the new types of jobs that could result? How about AI Facilitator, AI Change Manager, AI Instructor, AI Project Manager, AI Fun Specialist, Chief AI Officer,  or perhaps AI Intrapreneur?

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1.  There are 27 Subway Fold posts in the category of Big Data and Analytics.

2.  See the Subway Fold posts on December 12, 2014 entitled Three New Perspectives on Whether Artificial Intelligence Threatens or Benefits the World and then another on December 10, 2014 entitled  Is Big Data Calling and Calculating the Tune in Today’s Global Music Market? for specific examples of machine learning.

3.  I had the great privilege of reading one of Mr. Davenport’s very insightful and enlightening books entitled Competing on Analytics: The New Science of Winning (Harvard Business Review Press, 2007), when it was first published. I learned a great deal from it and this book was responsible for my initial interest in the applications of analytics in commerce. Although big data and analytics have grown exponentially since its publication, I still highly recommend this book for its clarity, usefulness and enthusiasm for this field.

4.  For a terrific and highly engaging study of the work and influence of these analysts, I also recommend reading The Quants: How a New Breed of Math Whizzes Conquered Wall Street and Nearly Destroyed It (Crown Business, 2011), by Scott Patterson.

5.  There was a most interesting side-by-side comparison of human versus automated financial advisors entitled Robo-Advisors Vs. Financial Advisors: Which Is Better For Your Money? by Libby Kane, posted on BusinessInsider.com on July 21, 2014.

Virtual Reality Movies Wow Audiences at 2015’s Sundance and SXSW Festivals

Image by mconnors

Image by mconnors

[This post was originally uploaded on December 12, 2014. It has been updated below with new information on December 19, 2014,  January 13, 2015 and March 27, 2015.]

December 12, 2014 Post:

At the 2015 Sundance Film Festival to be held in Park City Utah from January 22, 2015 through February 1, 2015, part of this major annual film event is a program called New Frontier. This year it will be presenting 13 virtual reality (VR) films and “experiences”. Advanced coverage of this event was reported in an article on Wired.com on December 4, 2014 entitled VR Films Are Going to Be All Over Sundance in 2015 by Angela Watercutter. After reading this exciting preview I wanted to immediately pack a bag and start walking there.

To sum up, annotate and comment upon some of the key points in this story, the platforms being used for these presentations will mostly be the Oculus, while Google Cardboard and Samsung’s Gear VR will also deployed. While the Oculus Rift headset has not yet released to the consumer public, developers currently do have had access to it. As a result, they were able to create and format these soon-to-be-premiered experimental works. This year’s offerings are a much deeper and wider lineup than the much more limited sampling of Ocolus-based experiments presented during the 2012 Sundance Festival.

(In a recent Subway Fold post on November 26, 2014 entitled Robots and Diamonds and Drones, Aha! Innovations on the Horizon for 2015, one of the startups briefly mentioned is called Jaunt which is described in the blog post as “… developing an entirely new platform and 360 degree camera to create fully immersive virtual reality movies to be viewed using the versatile new Oculus Rift headset.”)

Attendees at some other recent industry events have responded very favorably to Oculus demonstrations. They included a HBO’s presentation of a Game of Thrones experience at this year’s South by Southwest festival, a Jaeger-piloting simulation ¹ at the 2014 Comic-Con in San Diego , and at the 2014 Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3).

To read what some of the creators involved in Sundance’s VR movies have to say about their creations and some brief descriptions and 2-D graphics of this immersive fare, I very highly recommend clicking through and reading this report in its entirety. They include, among others, news and documentaries, bird flights, travel landscapes, rampaging Kaiju, and several social situations.

I wanna go!

My follow-up questions include:

  • Because VR movie production is entirely digital, can this experience be securely distributed online to other film festival and film schools to share with and, moreover, inspire new VR cinematic works by writers, directors, producers and actors?
  • Can the Hyve-3D virtual development platform covered in this August 28, 2014 Subway Fold Post entitled Hyve-3D: A New 3D Immersive and Collaborative Design System, be adapted and formatted for the cinema so that audiences can be fully immersed in virtual firms without the need for a VR headset?
  • If entertainment companies, movie producers, investors and other supporters line up behind the development and release of VR movies, will this be seen by the public as being more like 3-D movies where the novelty has quickly worn off ², or more like a fundamental shift in movie production, presentation and marketing? What if, using the Oculous Rift, users could experience movie trailers, if the entire film at any location? Would this be a market that might draw the attention of Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Google and other online content distributors and producers?

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1.  In another Jaeger and Kaiju-related update, there is indeed good news as reported on June 27, 2014 on the HuffingtonPost.com by Jessica Goodman in a story entitled ‘Pacific Rim 2’ Confirmed For 2017 Release Date.

2.  See 2014 Box Office Will Be Hurt By Diminishing Popularity Of 3D Movies: Analyst by David Lieberman, posted on Deadline.com on February 3, 2014. For other new theater experience innovations, see also To Lure Young, Movie Theaters Shake, Smell and Spritz by Brooks Barnes in the November 29, 2014 edition  of The New York Times.

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December 19, 2014 Update:

The current release of the movie adaptation of the novel Wild by Cheryl Strayed (Knopf, 2011), has been further formatted into 3-minute supplemental virtual reality movie as reported in the December 15, 2014 edition of The New York Times by Michael Cieply in an article entitled Virtual Reality ‘Wild’ Trek. This short film is also scheduled to be presented at the 2015 Sundance festival. Using Oculus and Samsung VR technology, this is an immersive meeting with the lead character, played by actress Reese Witherspoon, while she is hiking in the wilderness. She is quoted as being very pleased with the final results of this VR production.

January 13, 2015 Update:

While VR’s greatest core ability is in placing viewers within a totally immersive digital  environments, this also presents a challenge in keeping them fully focused upon the main narrative.That is, something happening off to the left or right may draw their attention away and thus detract from the experience.

A startup called Visionary VR has developed a system to reconcile this challenge. It enables creators of VR entertainment to concentrate the viewer’s attention upon the action occurring in the stories and games. This was reported in a most interesting article posted on Recode.com on January 5, 2015 entitled In Virtual Reality Movies, You Are the Camera. That Can Be a Problem, but Here’s One Solution, by Eric Johnson. I believe this will keep your attention as a reader, even in the three dimensions in the real world, and recommend clicking through for all of the details. As well, there is a rather spectacular video presented by the founders of the company on the capabilities of their system.

To recap the key points, Visionary VR creates an invisible boundary around the main narrative that alerts the viewer that they are looking away into other “zones” within the environment. When this occurs, the narrative is suspended but viewers can venture into these interactive peripheral areas and further explore elements of the story. Just as easily, they can return their gaze back to the story which will then re-engage and move forward. Visionary VR has created platform and toolkit for VR authors and storytellers to generate and edit their work while within a virtual environment itself. When viewing the accompanying video, the interface reminded me of something out of Minority Report.

(Btw, it has just been announced that this movie is going to be turned into a TV pilot for Fox according to a story posted on Deadline.com entitled ‘Minority Report’ Gets Fox Pilot Order, by Nellie Andreeva on January 9, 2015. This post also contains a photo from the movie showing this then fictional and now real interface. How cool would it be to see this new pilot in full VR?!)

March 27, 2015 Update:

VR movie technology continues to gather momentum and accolades at 2015’s artistic festivals. Its latest display was held at last week’s (March 13 through 17, 2015) South By Southwest Festival (SXSW). The page for the VR panel and speakers is linked here. Coverage of the event was posted in a very informative and enthusiastic article on VentureBeat.com entitled The Future of Interactive Cinematic VR is Coming, and Fast by Daniel Terdiman, on March 18, 2015.

Those in attendance were truly wowed by what they saw, and, moreover, the potential of fully immersive experiences and storytelling. Please click-through to this story for the full details. I will briefly sum up some of the main points.

The article mostly highlights and highly praises the demo by Jaunt, a startup emerging as one of the innovators in VR movies, mentioned in the initial December 12, 2014 post above. Other VR companies also presented their demos at SXSW.

The Jaunt demo consisted of Paul McCartney playing Live and Let Die in concert. Here’s the link to Jaunt’s Content page containing the stream for this and eight other VR movies (including the Kaiju Fury! film also mentioned in the December 12th post above). In order to immerse yourself in ay of these you will need either an Oculus Rift headset or a Google Cardboard device.

VR movie technology is indeed presenting filmmakers with “opportunities that have not been possible before”. This is likewise so for a range of content creators including, among others sure to come, musicians, athletes, interviewers and documentary makers.

Another panelist, Jason Rubin, the head of worldwide studios for Oculus, spoke about the level of progress being made to make these narrative experiences more genuinely interactive with viewers. He believes this will lead to entirely new forms of cinematic experiences.

Arthur van Hoff, Jaunt’s founder and CTO, stated the possibility of VR films where users can follow one particular actor’s perspective and story within the production. (Visionary VR’s technology, described in the January 13, 2015 Update above, might also be helpful in this regard.)

While new “companies, technologies and investors” in this nascent field are expected, Jaunt believes its current two-year lead will give its technology and productions an advantage.

“Hackcess to Justice” Legal Hackathons in 2014 and 2015

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Image by Sebastiaan ter Burg

 

[This post was originally uploaded on August 14, 2014. It has been updated below with new information on February 15, 2015 and again on March 24, 2015.]

August 14, 2014 Post:

Last week, the American Bar Association held its 2014 annual meeting in Boston. Among many other events and presentations, was one called Hackcess to Justice, a two-day hackathon held at Suffolk School of Law. The goal was to produce tools and apps to enable greater access to legal services for people who otherwise might not be able to obtain assistance or legal representation. A number of these problems seeking technological solutions were first identified by the Legal Services Corporation. A fully detailed report was posted on ABAnet.org on August 8, 2014, entitled Winning Apps in ‘Hackcess to Justice’ Help Write Wills, Navigate Disasters and Calculate Jail Time.

Prize money was awarded to the first, second and third place winners. The winning entries were apps, respectively, for creating and distributing living wills and health care proxies; proving information and resources to people in natural disasters; and to determine eligibility for legal help in MA and to calculate the length of state prison terms.

Recently, there have been other legal hackathons around the US. Two of them include one held at Brooklyn Law School in April 2014 and another held MIT in June 2014.

I hope to see more of these events in the future as I anticipate that they will continue to produce interesting results potentially benefiting clients and attorneys alike. I also think it will be interesting to track whether any of the tools and apps resulting from these legal hackathons gain acceptance in the marketplace for legal services.

February 15, 2015 Update:

A new Hackcess to Justice legal hackathon will be held in New Orleans on March 21 and 22, 2015. It is being presented by the ABA Journal and the New Orleans Bar Association. The details and a link to the registration page appeared in an article on ABAnet.org on February 12,, 2015 entitled Registration Opens for Hackcess to Justice New Orleans, by Lee Rawles. The event will be held at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law. Here is the link on the law school’s calendar to the event. The objectives, procedures and presentations appear to be very similar to the first Hackcess to Justice event held at Suffolk School of Law discussed above.

Once again, I am delighted to see another legal hackathon in the works. I believe that many tangible and positive results can come from such events for clients, law students, law schools, lawyers, bar associations, and the entire legal profession. My best wishes for its success in New Orleans and I hope to see these events spreading to other areas in the US and elsewhere.

March 24, 2015 Update:

A fanfare, please!

The top three winners of Hackcess to Justice competition (described in the February 15, 2015 post above), were announced on the Daily News page on the ABAJournal.com site yesterday, March 23, 2015. The article entitled Winning App at Hackess to Justice New Orleans Helps Clients Preserve Evidence, was written by Victor Li. I highly recommend clicking through and reading this for all of the details of these imaginative and innovative apps. It also has an embedded deck of tweets (with the links and hashtags remaining clickable), from the event that provide a vivid sense of this competition and the enthusiasm of its entrants.

Briefly summing up the top three winners:

  • First place went to an app called Legal Proof by a Omega Ortega LLC. This enables users to photograph documents and other evidence, generate metadata for it, and record additional relevant data.
  • Second place was awarded to attorneys William Palin and Ernie Svenson for a document generation app they call Paperless. This is designed specifically for legal aid attorneys to ascertain client eligibility, exchange legal documents, and transmit reminders concerning legal dates and issues.
  • Third place was won by a New Orleans non-profit called Operation Spark that promotes careers in software for young people. Their winning app is called ExpungeMe. This helps users to generate documents needed to prepare an expungement request without an attorney.

Massive amounts of congratulations to all of the winners!

Let’s continue to track these important events and the exciting new apps that are emerging from them.

What’s Succeeding Now in Multi-Level Digital Strategies for Companies

Image by mconnors

Image by mconnors

[This post was originally uploaded on January 16, 2015. It has been updated below with new information on March 22, 2015.]

It almost seems simple at first: What works and what doesn’t when companies implement their digital strategies in today’s highly competitive world of retailing? Answers such as “great social apps” or “full mobile implementation” are belied by their complexities in carefully making the right choices in the right markets, for the right products and service offerings, for right consumer demographic groups. As the global digital economy spins faster every day, businesses need keep pace and be able to rapidly adapt to a multitude of volatile market variables and evolving technologies.

In a deeply insightful and informative article posted on January 14, 2015, on the Harvard Business Review website entitled Why Nordstrom’s Digital Strategy Works (and Yours Probably Doesn’t) by Jeanne W. Ross, Cynthia M. Beath and Ina Sebastian, the retailer Nordstrom is presented as a paradigm for what does work and how the company made it so. I highly recommend reading it in its entirely. I will sum up, cross-reference some related Subway Fold posts, and add some questions to it.

The authors begin by citing a recent poll conducted by MIT Sloan School of Management, Center for Information Systems Research that found 42% of those responding anticipated a competitive edge from engaging the tech elements of social¹, mobile², analytics³, cloud and Internet of Things (SMACIT). Because each of these elements’ has a common denominator – – being their accessibility to “customers, employees, partners and competitors” – – they do not, per se, provide any commercial advantage. Rather, it is companies like Nordstrom that persistently focus on unifying all of these factors into a well-defined strategic purpose who will prosper.

For almost a century, Nordstrom has maintained their focus on producing an optimal experience for both customers and employees. Starting in the late 1990’s, they began searching for new technologies to “empower” their employees’ operations including the company’s website and inventory control that presented “a consistent multi-channel experience by 2002”. Thereafter, through 2014, they have continued to add more key innovations including:

  • Point-of-sale system that permits sales staff members to gather data on customers’ online requests
  • An internal lab for innovation
  • Apps for shopping (tightly linked to inventory control)
  • Mobile checkout that, among its other features, enables an employee to accompanying a customer through the payment process
  • Texting support for sales reps
  • A personalized men’s clothing service residing in the cloud

These systems are highly integrated with each other, firmly establishing and embedding a digital business model throughout the organization. Among its other achievements, inventory control and delivery have been optimized and, in turn, make the experience of ordering and delivering merchandise a seamless and convenient operation. Elsewhere on the web, Nordstrom’s presence on the social site Pinterest provides its employees with an enhanced understanding of customers’ interests and preferences. Most telling of all is the fact that Nordstrom’s revenues have increased by more than 50% during the last five years.

The authors again emphasize that the company’s financial and strategic successes with their digital operations, in this digital economy, is due far more to their tight woven SMACIT program, rather than just having a collection of superior but otherwise isolated elements of it. Thus, absent all of SMACIT’s pieces working in harmony with comprehensive corporate support, other retailers will not attain similar business benefits. The sum of the whole program is much greater than its individual parts.

My follow-up questions include:

  • How can other companies, including competitors in the retail industry as well as others in unrelated markets, benefit from Nordstrom’s digital business model? For instance, would this also produce demonstrable benefits for an auto manufacturer? What internal and customer-facing metrics and controls would indicate progress for such efforts?
  • Is Nordstrom’s  strategy likewise adaptable and applicable to more service-oriented industries such as law, medicine or accounting? If so, what adjustments to the planning process would be needed?
  • What new forms of jobs might emerge for dedicated executives, project managers and other enablers to make SMACIT-based plans work? Might this also create new entrepreneurial opportunities to provide additional policy, planning and logistical support?

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1.  See the category Social Media for all related Subway Fold posts.

2.  See the category Telecommunications for all related Subway Fold posts.

3.  See the category Big Data and Analytics for all related Subway Fold posts.

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March 22, 2015 Update:

The initial post above identified five key elements of successful contemporary digital strategies as including social, mobile, analytics, cloud and the Internet of Things, forming the anagram SMACIT. On March 18, 2015, a fascinating and highly useful posting recently appeared on AdAge.com entitled More Data Brings More Risk: CMOs Must Embrace ‘Risk Marketing’ by Curtis Hougland on March 18, 2015. I believe that its exploration and 5-point plan for implementing risk management is so important that it should be integrated into SMACIT. I further suggest adding the letter “R” and then rearranging the anagram to be CAR MITS because it’s easier to remember and “car” (as in driving a strategy) and “mits” (for wearing protective gear when handing something important).

Mr. Hougland as produced an expertly written and highly persuasive case for how “risk marketing” in inevitably part of every chief marketing officer’s (CMO) key concerns. Moreover, he presents concise and pragmatic plan for them to evaluate and integrate into their strategic planning. These include the following, which are detailed in his piece:

  • Embedding risk assessment as a core marketing practice
  • Embracing compliance
  • Borrowing the risk management playbook in marketing
  • De-siloing [read: opening] problem solving
  • Approaching data as a creative exercise

Never missing an opportunity to try an anagram, I have come up the following for this: Compliance, Open problem solving, Playbook, Embedding risk assessment, and Data. Thus, when a CMO is asked whether he or she has deploying this strategic plan they can confidently reply “Yes, I have COPED with it”.

I strongly suggest not limiting just this to the consideration of CMOs. Rather, I believe that anyone working in marketing, business development, operations, IT, legal and knowledge management can benefit and help to implement these components.

If the initial January 17, 2015 post above was of interest to you, then I urge you to click-through and read this new piece in its entirety. I believe you will find a strong synergy between both of the marketing strategies being advocated by their respective authors.

Studies Link Social Media Data with Personality and Health Indicators

twitter-292994_1280[This post was originally uploaded on January 27, 2015. It has been updated below with new information on March 20, 2015.]

Reports of two new studies were issued recently describing meaningful connections between the predictive value of Facebook Likes and personality types, and next the parsing of language in Tweets to forecast the likelihood of heart disease. This presents us with an opportunity to examine two highly similar human health indicators that were identified by sophisticated analytics applied to massive troves of data generated by two of the world’s leading social media platforms. Where is all of this leading and what issues arise as a result? I will first summarize some parts of these two reports, add some links and annotations, and then pose some questions. I also highly recommend clicking through for a full read of both of pieces.

The first report was posted on NewScientist.com on January 12, 2015 with the concise title of What You ‘Like’ on Facebook Gives Away Your Personality by Hal Hodson. According to this article, researchers working at Stanford University and Cambridge University have developed an algorithm that, based completely upon what people “Like” on Facebook, can be determinative of a user’s personality. The data for this was gathered in a survey of 86,000 people who filled out personality questionnaires that were then matched against their activity on Facebook. Indeed, the results showed that this new method was more accurate than the determinations of the test subjects’ family and friends.

These characteristics are called the Big Five personality traits and include (as explored in detail in the preceding Wikipedia link):

  • Openness to experience
  • Conscientiousness
  • Extraversion
  • Agreeableness
  • Neuroticism

The article includes comments from David Funder of the University of California, Riverside, who is a researcher on personality, that while this study is “impressive”, it still does not provide a truly deep understanding of an individual’s personality. Funder’s work looks at 100 dimensions, a far larger number than the researchers in the Facebook study who focused upon the Big Five.

Nonetheless, two of these researchers on this new study, Youyou Wu  of Cambridge and Michael Kosinski of Stanford, believe their work is applicable on a global scale and applied in several areas. For instance,  they foresee their new Like algorithm could be used to in hiring operations to search large data files of candidates and identify those who might be most suitable for a particular job. Other possibilities include health and education. Kosinski also acknowledges that this approach would further require appropriate policy and technology considerations in order to address issues such its potential invasiveness.

(In a similar application Facebook Likes and other data from social media sites, universities in the US are now using such information and analytics to locate and pitch to alumni as potential donors as reported in a most interesting article in the January 25, 2015 edition of The New York Times entitled Your College May Be Banking on Your Facebook Likes, by Natasha Singer. Among other things, this story reports on the work and methods of two startups in this area called EverTrue and Graduway.)

The second report linking social media data to a health indicator was Scientists Say Tweets Predict Heart Disease and Community Health by Derrick Harris posted on Gigaom.com on January 22, 2015. In a study authored by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, as part of their Well-Being Project, entitled Psychological Language on Twitter Predicts County-Level Heart Disease Mortality, they concluded that the vocabulary use by individuals in their Tweets can  predict “the rate of heart disease deaths in the counties where they live”. This phenomenon manifests itself by showing that Tweets concerning more upbeat topics and expressed in more positive terms correlated with lower mortality rates when compared to rates reported by the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Conversely, mortality rates were higher in areas “with angry language about negative topics”.

The accompanying side-by-said graphics of the Twitter data and the CDC data covering the upper right quarter of the US states and their constituent 1,300 counties, dramatically illustrates these findings. The pool of data was drawn from 148 million Tweets with geotags.

These results also provide further support for the accuracy and predictive validity of data from Twitter, notwithstanding any “inherent geographical biases”, and exceeding that of more “traditional polls or surveys”. Indeed, language in Tweets turns out to have a comparatively higher predictive value than other economic or health-related data. The researchers further believe that their findings might be more helpful when applied to “community-scale policies or interventions” rather than to assisting specific people.

My follow-up questions include:

  • Would mapping a statistically significant number of Twitter networks in counties with higher and/or lower mortality rates, a process described in the February 5, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled Visualization, Interpretation and Inspiration from Mapping Twitter Networks, provide additional insights that would be helpful to medical professionals and local policy planners? For example, are many of the negative Twitter posters in each other’s networks such that they become self-reinforcing? Are there recognizable network effects occurring that can somehow be corrected with regards to the degree of negativity and, in turn, public health? Would this pose any legal, policy or privacy issues?
  • For both of these articles, do these types of findings require more rigorous and wider-scale mathematical and scientific analysis before applying them to such critically important mental and physical health matters? If so, should such testing be done by public or private institutions, universities and/or the government agencies?
  • As first expressed in this November 22, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled Minting New Big Data Types and Analytics for Investors, how are the differences in correlation and causation being factored into these studies? Given the skepticism expressed above about Facebook Likes being so indicative about personality, are there other effects and influences that need to be identified and filtered out of these types of conclusions?
  • If the usage and analysis of social media data continues to grow in areas, well, like employment, education and health, what protections, if any, should people be given, by law and/or the social media companies, to protect themselves or opt out in advance of any potentially negative consequences?

March 20, 2015 Update:

Providing some very worthwhile additional insight and analysis of the University of Pennsylvania study covered in the initial post above, Maria Konnikova has written a very engaging article entitled What Your Tweets Say About You that was posted on The New Yorker website on March 17, 2015. I highly recommend clicking through and reading the entire text. I will sum up just some of the key points, add some links and pose several  additional questions.

The research study (linked to above), was conducted by a team led by psychologist and Professor Johannes Eichstaedt. Their main conclusion was that the collection and subsequent linguistic analysis of tweets proved to be validly predictive of locations with higher concentrations of fatalities from cardiovascular disease. The inverse was also true that geographic clusters of tweets with more positive content had lower death rates from the same cause. It was not that the population tweeting had heart disease, but rather, there is a discernible correlation between angrier content and a higher incidence of the heart disease within an area.

This “correlation is especially strange” due to the fact that Twitter users are generally younger that individuals who perish from heart ailments. Citing a January 9, 2015 study from the Pew Research Center entitled Demographics of Key Social Networking Platforms (also, imho, well worth a click-through and full reading), which, among other things tabulates the ages of the users of all of the leading social media platforms. Just 22% of US Twitter users are more than 50 years old. However, the relative risk of heart disease does not begin to rise until decades later.

How, then, to analytically connect younger people in a particular area who are posting negative tweets with their older neighbors who face higher chances of developing heart disease? The researchers theorize that the tweets “may be a window into the aggregated and powerful effects if the community context”. The overall health of people living in a particular area that is “poorer, more fragmented” and not as healthy as those residing in “richer, integrated ones”. As a result, the angrier tweets of someone in their twenties are likely reflective of an area with higher life stressors that, in turn, later result in more heart-related deaths.

Nonetheless, another renowned expert in this field of linguistic analysis of text, James Pennebaker, recommended caution in drawing any connection based upon this data. He urges further study of the data and posing additional questions about causation. Currently, in his own work, he is examining Twitter data to see how family and religious factors evolve.

There is also value in studying social media content of individuals. For example, Microsoft has previously studied 70,000 tweets of people with depression and then used this data to construct a “predictive index” to identify “other users who were likely depressed based on their social-media posts”.

Eisenstaedt’s team is continuing their work by looking at Twitter data for individuals and communities over time periods, rather than a “snapshot” data set. They are also adding Facebook profiles to their work.

Finally, Pennebaker believes that social media may also generate positive effects on mental health based on his previous studies on the benefits of keeping a personal journal. This may be so despite the private nature of a journal and the very public access of social media and its interactivity.

My additional questions are as follows:

  • Will additional discreet language patterns be discovered and validated that will indicate concentrations of other medical conditions within communities? Are we only at the beginning of using textual analysis of tweets as a metric of the states of local health?
  • Given that there is a lag time of years between negative tweets and the appearance of heart disease, should interventions be undertaken within a community at higher risk and, if so, by whom and at what cost?
  • Are other negative online behaviors such as cyberbullying indicative of some form of identifiable illness that can be treated on a community-wide basis or must this be dealt with on an individual in a case-by-case manner?

Spectacular Views of New York, San Francisco and Las Vegas at Night from 7,500 Feet Up

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Image by kconnors

[This post was originally uploaded on January 14, 2015. It has been updated below with new information on March 19, 2015.]

Even as a lifelong New Yorker, I believe that each day always brings many new things to see and to learn about this great place. Indeed, no one can ever quite know it all or live everything it has to offer. Such vastness and diversity are two its many enduring charms.

I just experienced that sense of wonder on an even greater scale upon viewing nine extraordinary images that have been posted today (January 14, 2015) in a story on Mashable.com entitled What a Night in New York City Looks Like from 7,500 Feet by Max Knoblauch. This display and accompanying text is about the photos taken by Vincent Laforet, a Pultizer prize-winning photographer, from a helicopter at 7,500 feet above Manhattan on the night of November 8, 2014. These were taken as an assignment for Men’s Health magazine. He is quoted here about how he accomplished this and the challenges it posed. As also linked to within in the article is the full set of Laforet’s dazzling photos from this project on a site on Storehouse.com entitled Gotham 7.5K as well as a 3.5 minute video of how he does this high altitude urban photography. I, well, highly recommend clicking through and viewing both of these.

Also, I would just like to add a few bits of navigation to the photos as they appear on Mashable for those of you who are not familiar with New York:

Photo 1:  Broadway and Times Square looking east to west, in an ocean of LED signage everywhere. (For further information about the technology of this illumination see the August 11, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled Times Square’s Operating System.)

Photo 2: All of Manhattan looking north to south starting at Battery Park at the bottom center of the image. To the right are Brooklyn and Queens. To the left is New Jersey.

Photo 3: Midtown Manhattan from the Hudson river on the very left to the Est River on the very right. Broadway, again, is the very brightly lit street appearing diagonally from the upper middle left to the lower middle right. The brightly lit circular building to the middle left is Madison Square Garden.

Photo 4:  The new World Trade Center and to the right is the Wall Street area.

Photo 5:  The Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan Bridge spanning, not surprisingly, Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Photo 6:  Another view of Manhattan very similar to Photo 2, this time more of a southwest to northeast perspective. Notice also the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges from Photo 5 above, seen here in the middle right of the picture.

Photo 7:  Moving from top to bottom are the point further south in Manhattan where Broadway and Sixth Avenue intersect each other. The Empire State Building is to the middle right.

Photo 8:  Midtown.

Photo 9: A Reverse POV from Photos 2 and 6, this time going river to river from north to south. Central Park is the rectangular area in the lower middle right, the World Trade Center is in the upper middle area, and the bridges are off to the left. Brooklyn is to the left and New Jersey is to the right.

For another astonishing panoramic of New York from way up, please also see this cover of the March 17, 2014 issue of Time that was taken from the very top of the antenna on the World Trade Center and the accompanying story of how it was done.

March 19, 2015 Update:

Today’s (March 19, 2015) edition of The New York Times carried a very informative report with more detail about Vincent Laforet’s aerial photography, this time of San Francisco entitled Capturing The Night in Digital Photos, Spectacularly by Farhad Manjoo (the regular writer of the NYTimes’ always excellent, imho,  State of the Art column). It was accompanied by four of his remarkable photos of the City by the Bay from waaaay up high at night. I highly recommend clicking through for the full-text of this story and its eye-popping graphics. I will briefly summarize some of the extra information in this piece not covered in the Mashable.com story above.

Mr. Laforet has been able to capture New York, San Francisco and Las Vegas in his truly original nighttime photography because of the dramatic advances in the digital cameras and the software he uses such as Adobe Lightroom. To demonstrate the possibilities, he took Mr. Manjoo along for a photographic session from a helicopter over San Francisco. One of the images he took, the third of four in the article, makes this city appear as “an orange-and-blue microchip”.

When Mr. Laforet’s photo’s of New York were first published in Men’s Health, he was let down by the relative lack of response they received. However, when he uploaded the images to Storehouse.com (linked to above), they proceeded to go viral across the Web. This new link on Storehouse.com contains his photo galleries of New York, San Francisco and Las Vegas. I believe they will leave you in absolute wonder at their beauty.

Mr. Laforet has developed a series of technological and physical techniques in order to steady himself and his imagery under very challenging conditions. He also takes a large number of photos during each of his sky-bound photography adventures in order to capture numerous perspectives while employing a variety of cameras and lenses.

Massive amounts of kudos to Mr. Laforet as an artist doing truly original and imaginative work.

Optimizing the Time You Have Available for Reading

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“On the Platform, Reading”, Image by Mo Riza

There is too much to read every day and the amount of it never seems to stop growing! We are swamped with such a multitude of bits and atoms in the forms books, newspapers, magazines, blogs, websites and apps that no one can possibly get through everything that he or she intends to read. Nonetheless, we live in an age where information is a ubiquitous and a uniquely valuable form of currency.

While there have been countless presentations and publications on how to tame “information overload“, many of them worthwhile, the need for some new methods is always welcome. There are no absolutely right or wrong ways to increase your consumption of text on paper and on-screen, but rather, a growing choice of methods that meets your individual preference and capabilities.

Surely, no one has figured out how to increase the amount of time in each day. It is finite and that’s that. Nonetheless, there are many active and motivated readers out there who have learned to make better use of the time they can allocate for reading. These benefits are found both in terms of the quantity of material they can cover, their comprehension of it, and their retention for subsequent recall, application and synthesis.

Sue Shellenbarger, the writer for The Wall Street Journal who write the (always excellent, imho) Work and Family column, published a very helpful and insightful piece entitled Get Down to Magazine Zero: Reading Faster and Smarter, in the March 11, 2015 edition of the paper. (The article appears on WSJ.com under the different title of How to Declutter Your Magazine Pile.) I will first summarize, list and add some comments to the methods described in this article and then add a series of my own suggestions in this never-ending quest to stay up-to-date.

According to Shellenbarger’s own research and the people and experts she interviewed, the following alternatives can help to optimize your reading time:

  • Confining your Facebook usage to a weekly stop limited to industry news. Likewise, reduce the time you spend watching TV and use the time for reading.
  • Passing up Wi-Fi availability on plane flight and instead dedicating that time for reading.
  • Listening to audio-books while on public transportation, walking or exercise.
  • Employing a strategy called “Always be reading” or ABR. That is, to always have reading material with you during any activity where you might have some time to yourself such as commuting or waiting in line. I have always followed ABR to the, well, letter. I never leave home or even go to the laundry room (which, btw, can be quite conducive to reading soap operas), without something to read.
  • Printout or email yourself important articles for later access and review.
  • Trying out one or more of the seven downloadable apps for mobile devices listed in an accompanying sidebar to this article. They provide convenient support for users to “compile, organize and prioritize” items you have selected for later viewing. Of these, I have used Flipboard and found it to be quite helpful. Another hugely popular app in this space and for other useful online gathering and drafting function is Evernote.
  • Meeting with friends on a regular basis who have some expertise in particular area of interest to you and, in turn, you know about a field of interest to them.
  • Setting the timer on your smartphone for a fixed period each day devoted exclusively to reading and use it to maintain your reading schedule.
  • Prioritize your reading material on a continual basis in order to elevate or eliminate each item accordingly.
  • Consider taking a speed reading course.
  • Other interesting sites mentioned include Summary.com which offers executive summaries of books, and NextIssue.com is a subscription site gateway to  unlimited access 140 magazines.

Here are some of my own suggestions:

  • Make good use of the Bookmarks in Firefox or the Favorites in Internet Explorer to mark and save the sites your frequently visit. This provides ready one-click access to all of them. Moreover, you can easily organize them into lists, folders and sub-folders according to your browsing needs.
  • Try your browser’s RSS function to “push” content of interest out to you as soon as it is posted online.
  • For scanning through a concise and self-vetted series of sites and blogs of interest to you, I find that using the browser bookmarks on my tablet and smartphone to be a very expedient means of staying current. (See the sixth bullet-point above again for apps that can assist with this.)
  • Set up an additional Twitter feeds to dedicate entirely as your own newsreader. Rather than using this for any interactive or communications purposes, limit this for personally curated content only.
  • Try setting up a few Google Alerts with its fine-grained filters to deliver news to your Google account.
  • Keep current on newly published books by regularly reading book reviews. The book sections of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal are great places to begin.
  • Use Amazon.com to research books, authors and topics of interest to you. Likewise, follow some of the links to the books recommended on the pages you are perusing. For a more retro version of this, I highly recommend wandering around a bookstore and seeing where it takes you in terms of discovering new titles and writers. (If you are in or near New York, there is no better place anywhere to do this than The Strand Bookstore.) I also recommend visiting GoodReads.com as an endless virtual well of book recommendations.
  • Set up self-imposed deadlines and goals to try to get through everything you deem important. For example, I will finish this book by X date; I will finish 25 books this year; I will finish all of my online or on paper subscriptions before the next issues are posted and/or mailed; and so on.