Pushing the Envelopes: New US Postal Service Report Assesses Possible Blockchain Applications

"Vibrant US Air Mail Stamp", Image by Nicolas Raymond

“Vibrant US Air Mail Stamp”, Image by Nicolas Raymond

Way before the advent of email, when people exclusively wrote letters on paper and mailed them to each other (yes, this really did happen once upon a time), there was a long-running scam known as the “chain letter“. Recipients who received such a letter were asked, often through manipulative language, to copy it and send it on to as many other people as possible. In effect, these were structured as fraudulent pyramid schemes that ultimately would collapse in on themselves.

Sometimes chain letters involved illegal financial dealings and other hoaxes, also producing unwanted emotional effects on who mistakenly fell for them. Variations of the chain letter still survive today online and operate using email, texting and social media.

However, an emerging new form of virtual chain, in conjunction with the mail service, might soon appear – – namely using the blockchain – – within the U.S. Postal Service (USPS). However, this combination could potentially produce four very positive improvements in services. These exciting prospects were the subject of a most interesting new post on Quartz.com on May 24, 2016 entitled Even the US Postal Service Wants to Start Using Blockchain Tech, by Ian Kar. I recommend reading this article in its entirety. I will summarize and annotate it, and pose some questions of my own (but without any additional postage due).

While blockchain technology has been getting a great deal of press coverage recently involving innovative new development initiatives in, among other fields, finance, law, government and the arts, this story illustrates how it also might affect something as routine and mundane as mail service with possibly dramatic results. Such changes could produce significant economic and logistical advances that would affect just about anyone who checks their real world mailbox every day.

(These six Subway Fold posts cover just a small sampling of blochchain projects.)

Better Letters

Image from Pixabay

Image from Pixabay

Traditionally, the USPS has never really distinguished itself as a leader in innovation. Rather, it has a long reputation for its inefficient operations. This could possibly be significantly changed by this series of a series of blockchain proposals. Because this technology is decentralized, widely accessible, and secured by encryption, it is highly resistant to tampering.

On May 23, 2016, the USPS Office of the Inspector General and a consulting firm called Swiss Economics, published a new report entitled Blockchain Technology: Possibilities for the U.S. Postal Service. It analyzed the following four possible future implementations:

1.  Financial Services:  US post offices currently offers a limited number of financial services such as international money transfers. The IOG report speculated that the USPS “could benefit from developing its own bitcoin-like digital currency”.  Perhaps it could be called “Postcoin”. This would permit the expansion into other financial services such as a “global payment service” for people without traditional bank accounts.

2.  Identity:  An individual’s identity could be verified for the USPS using a blockchain. Essentially, they already do this when they deliver your mail to you each day. By using a blockchain for this, the USPS could provide you with assistance to help you manage both your online and offline identities “by storing it on an immutable ledger”.

3.  Logistics Support:  Applying the blochchain to support the Internet of Things (IoT) could enhance the USPS logistics management operations. The IGO report imagine a system where “vehicles and sorting equipment could manage their own tracking, monitoring, and maintenance”. This could include items such as autonomously, efficiently and economically monitoring brake pad performance including:

  • Assessing when one will need to be replaced
  • Determining whether its warranty is still in effect
  • Creating a smart contract with a vendor to replace it
  • Paying for the part and its installation

4.  Mail Tracking:  On a daily basis, the USPS delivers 509 million pieces of mail. As stated in the OIG report, the blockchain can be deployed to uniquely identify each piece of it. This could be done with “a small sensor” on each piece in order to use the blockchain to “manage the chain of custody between different USPS partners, like UPS and Fedex”. As well, the blockchain could be put to the additional uses of:

  • Expediting customs clearance
  • Integrating payments
  • Shipping upon one unified platform

[All of these components form the very convenient anagram FILM, thus making it easier to, well, picture.]

For now, the USPS intends to keep studying blockchain technology. The OIG report states that the agency “could benefit from experimenting” with it on new financial products and then eventually progress on toward “more complex uses”.

"Stamped Mail to be Posted", Image by Steven Depolo

“Stamped Mail to be Posted”, Image by Steven Depolo

My Questions

  • Would these blochchain apps have a negative impact on USPS revenues as this massive government agency has been running at a budget deficit for many years? If so, would this have unintended negative consequences for consumers and/or the USPS?
  • Conversely, can the USPS use blockchain innovations to create new sources of revenue and employment? What new sorts of job descriptions and titles might emerge?
  • Would the blockchain do away with the traditional services of certified, registered, priority and insured mail? If so, what forms of proof of delivery or non-delivery could be provided to consumers?
  • Would any of these proposed new apps possibly create new privacy issues for consumers and policy concerns for the US government?
  • What type of opportunities might arise for entrepreneurs to create new mail apps built on the blockchain?

Ethical Issues and Considerations Arising in Big Data Research

Image from Pixabay

Image from Pixabay

In 48 of 50 states in the US, new attorneys are required to pass a 60 multiple-choice question exam on legal ethics in addition to passing their state’s bar exam. This is known as the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE). I well recall taking this test myself.

The subject matter of this test is the professional ethical roles and responsibilities a lawyer must abide by as an advocate and counselor to clients, courts and the legal profession. It is founded upon a series of ethical considerations and disciplinary rules that are strictly enforced by the bars of each state. Violations can potentially lead to a series of professional sanctions and, in severe cases depending upon the facts, disbarment from practice for a term of years or even permanently.

In other professions including, among others, medicine and accounting, similar codes of ethics exist and are expected to be scrupulously followed. They are defined efforts to ensure honesty, quality, transparency and integrity in their industries’ dealings with the public, and to address certain defined breaches. Many professional trade organizations also have formal codes of ethics but often do not have much, if any, sanction authority.

Should some comparable forms of guidelines and boards likewise be put into place to oversee the work of big data researchers? This was the subject of a very compelling article posted on Wired.com on May 20, 2016, entitled Scientists Are Just as Confused About the Ethics of Big-Data Research as You by Sharon Zhang. I highly recommend reading it in its entirety. I will summarize, annotate and add some further context to this, as well as pose a few questions of my own.

Two Recent Data Research Incidents

Last month. an independent researcher released, without permission, the profiles with very personal information of 70,000 users of the online dating site OKCupid. These users were quite angered by this. OKCupid is pursuing a legal claim to remove this data.

Earlier in 2014, researchers at Facebook manipulated items in users’ News Feeds for a study on “mood contagion“.¹ Many users were likewise upset when they found out. The journal that published this study released an “expression of concern”.

Users’ reactions over such incidents can have an effect upon subsequent “ethical boundaries”.

Nonetheless, the researchers involved in both of these cases had “never anticipated” the significant negative responses to their work. The OKCupid study was not scrutinized by any “ethical review process”, while a review board at Cornell had concluded that the Facebook study did not require a full review because the Cornell researchers only had a limited role in it.

Both of these incidents illustrate how “untested the ethics” are of these big data research. Only now are the review boards that oversee the work of these researchers starting to pay attention to emerging ethical concerns. This is in high contrast to the controls and guidelines upon medical research in clinical trials.

The Applicability of The Common Rule and Institutional Research Boards

In the US, under the The Common Rule, which governs ethics for federally funded biomedical and behavioral research where humans are involved, studies are required to undergo an ethical review.  However, such review does not apply a “unified system”, but rather, each university maintains its own institutional review board (IRB). These are composed of other (mostly medical) researchers at each university. Only a few of them “are professional ethicists“.

To a lesser extent, do they have experience in computer technology. This deficit may be affecting the protection of subjects who participate in data science research projects. In the US, there are hundreds of IRBs but they are each dealing with “research efforts in the digital age” in their own ways.

Both the Common Rule and the IRB system came into being following the revelation in the 1970s that the U.S. Public Health Service had, between 1932 and 1972, engaged in a terrible and shameful secret program that came to be known as the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. This involved leaving African Americans living in rural Alabama with untreated syphilis in order to study the disease. As a result of this outrage, the US Department of Health and Human Services created new regulations concerning any research on human subjects they conducted. All other federal agencies likewise adopted such regulations. Currently, “any institution that gets federal funding has to set up an IRB to oversee research involving humans”.

However, many social scientists today believe these regulations are not accurate or appropriate for their types of research involving areas where the risks involved “are usually more subtle than life or death”. For example, if you are seeking volunteers to take a survey on test-taking behaviors, the IRB language requirements on physical risks does not fit the needs of the participants in such a study.

Social scientist organizations have expressed their concern about this situation. As a result, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has recommended:

  • Adding more social scientists to IRBs, or
  • Creating new and separate review boards to assess social science research

In 2013, AAUP issued a report entitled Regulation of Research on Human Subjects: Academic Freedom and the Institutional Review Board, recommending that the researchers themselves should decide if “their minimal risk work needs IRB approval or not”. In turn, this would make more time available to IRBs for “biomedical research with life-or-death stakes”.

This does not, however, imply that all social science research, including big data studies, are entirely risk-free.

Ethical Issues and Risk Analyses When Data Sources Are Comingled

Dr. Elizabeth A. Buchanan who works as an ethicist at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, believes that the Internet is now entering its “third phase” where researchers can, for example, purchase several years’ worth of Twitter data and then integrate it “with other publicly available data”.² This mixture results in issues involving “ethics and privacy”.

Recently, while serving on an IRB, she took part in evaluated a project proposal involving merging mentions of a drug by its street name appearing on social media with public crime data. As a result, people involved in crimes could potentially become identified. The IRB still gave its approval. According to Dr. Buchanan, the social value of this undertaking must be weighed against its risk. As well, the risk should be minimized by removing any possible “idenifiers” in any public release of this information.

As technology continues to advance, such risk evaluation can become more challenging. For instance, in 2013, MIT researchers found out that they were able to match up “publicly available DNA sequences” by using data about the participants that the “original researchers” had uploaded online.³ Consequently, in such cases, Dr. Buchanan believes it is crucial for IRBs “to have either a data scientist, computer scientist or IT security individual” involved.

Likewise, other types of research organizations such as, among others, open science repositories, could perhaps “pick up the slack” and handle more of these ethical questions. According to Michelle Meyer, a bioethicist at Mount Sinai, oversight must be assumed by someone but the best means is not likely to be an IRB because they do not have the necessary “expertise in de-identification and re-identification techniques”.

Different Perspectives on Big Data Research

A technology researcher at the University of Maryland 4 named Dr. Katie Shilton recently conducted interviews of “20 online data researchers”. She discovered “significant disagreement” among them on matters such as the “ethics of ignoring Terms of Service and obtaining informed consent“. The group also reported that the ethical review boards they dealt with never questioned the ethics of the researchers, while peer reviewers and their professional colleagues had done so.

Professional groups such as the Association of Internet Researchers (AOIR) and the Center for Applied Internet Data Analysis (CAIDA) have created and posted their own guidelines:

However, IRBs who “actually have power” are only now “catching up”.

Beyond universities, tech companies such as Microsoft have begun to establish in-house “ethical review processes”. As well, in December 2015, the Future of Privacy Forum held a gathering called Beyond IRBs to evaluate “processes for ethical review outside of federally funded research”.

In conclusion., companies continually “experiment on us” with data studies. Just to name to name two, among numerous others, they focus on A/B testing 5 of news headings and supermarket checkout lines. As they hire increasing numbers of data scientists from universities’ Ph.D. programs, these schools are sensing an opportunity to close the gap in terms of using “data to contribute to public knowledge”.

My Questions

  • Would the companies, universities and professional organizations who issue and administer ethical guidelines for big data studies be taken more seriously if they had the power to assess and issue public notices for violations? How could this be made binding and what sort of appeals processes might be necessary?
  • At what point should the legal system become involved? When do these matters begin to involve civil and/or criminal investigations and allegations? How would big data research experts be certified for hearings and trials?
  • Should teaching ethics become a mandatory part of curriculum in data science programs at universities? If so, should the instructors only be selected from the technology industry or would it be helpful to invite them from other industries?
  • How should researchers and their employers ideally handle unintended security and privacy breaches as a result of their work? Should they make timely disclosures and treat all inquiries with a high level of transparency?
  • Should researchers experiment with open source methods online to conduct certain IRB functions for more immediate feedback?

 


1.  For a detailed report on this story, see Facebook Tinkers With Users’ Emotions in News Feed Experiment, Stirring Outcry, by Vindu Goel, in the June 29, 2014 edition of The New York Times.

2These ten Subway Fold posts cover a variety of applications in analyzing Twitter usage data.

3.  For coverage on this story see an article published in The New York Times on January 17, 2013, entitled Web Hunt for DNA Sequences Leaves Privacy Compromised, by Gina Kolata.

4.  For another highly interesting but unrelated research initiative at the University of Maryland, see the December 27, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled Virtual Reality Universe-ity: The Immersive “Augmentarium” Lab at the U. of Maryland.

5.  For a detailed report on this methodology, see the September 30, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled Google’s A/B Testing Method is Being Applied to Improve Government Operations.

LinkNYC Rollout Brings Speedy Free WiFi and New Opportunities for Marketers to New York

Link.NYC WiFi Kiosk 5, Image by Alan Rothman

Link.NYC WiFi Kiosk 5, Image by Alan Rothman

Back in the halcyon days of yore before the advent of smartphones and WiFi, there were payphones and phone booths all over of the streets in New York. Most have disappeared, but a few scattered survivors have still managed to hang on. An article entitled And Then There Were Four: Phone Booths Saved on Upper West Side Sidewalks, by Corey Kilgannon, posted on NYTimes.com on February 10, 2016, recounts the stories of some of the last lonely public phones.

Taking their place comes a highly innovative new program called LinkNYC (also @LinkNYC and #LinkNYC). This initiative has just begun to roll out across all five boroughs with a network of what will become thousands of WiFi kiosks providing free and way fast free web access and phone calling, plus a host of other online NYC support services. The kiosks occupy the same physical spaces as the previous payphones.

The first batch of them has started to appear along Third Avenue in Manhattan. I took the photos accompanying this post of one kiosk at the corner of 14th Street and Third Avenue. While standing there, I was able to connect to the web on my phone and try out some of the LinkNYC functions. My reaction: This is very cool beans!

LinkNYC also presents some potentially great new opportunities for marketers. The launch of the program and the companies getting into it on the ground floor were covered in a terrific new article on AdWeek.com on February 15, 2015 entitled What It Means for Consumers and Brands That New York Is Becoming a ‘Smart City’, by Janet Stilson. I recommend reading it in its entirety. I will summarize and annotate it to add some additional context, and pose some of my own ad-free questions.

LinkNYC Set to Proliferate Across NYC

Link.NYC WiFi Kiosk 2, Image by Alan Rothman

Link.NYC WiFi Kiosk 2, Image by Alan Rothman

When completed, LinkNYC will give New York a highly advanced mobile network spanning the entire city. Moreover, it will help to transform it into a very well-wired “smart city“.¹ That is, an urban area comprehensively collecting, analyzing and optimizing vast quantities of data generated by a wide array of sensors and other technologies. It is a network and a host of network effects where a city learns about itself and leverages this knowledge for multiple benefits for it citizenry.²

Beyond mobile devices and advertising, smart cities can potentially facilitate many other services. The consulting firm Frost & Sullivan predicts that there will be 26 smart cities across the globe during by 2025. Currently, everyone is looking to NYC to see how the implementation of LinkNYC works out.

According to Mike Gamaroff, the head of innovation in the New York office of Kinetic Active a global media and marketing firm, LinkNYC is primarily a “utility” for New Yorkers as well as “an advertising network”. Its throughput rates are at gigabit speeds thereby making it the fastest web access available when compared to large commercial ISP’s average rates of merely 20 to 30 megabits.

Nick Cardillicchio, a strategic account manager at Civiq Smartscapes, the designer and manufacturer of the LinkNYC kiosks, said that LinkNYC is the only place where consumers can access the Net at such speeds. For the AdWeek.com article, he took the writer, Janet Stilson, on a tour of the kiosks include the one at Third Avenue and 14th Street, where one of the first ones is in place. (Coincidentally, this is the same kiosk I photographed for this post.)

There are a total of 16 currently operational for the initial testing. The WiFi web access is accessible with 150 feet of the kiosk and can range up to 400 feet. Perhaps those New Yorkers actually living within this range will soon no longer need their commercial ISPs.

Link.NYC WiFi Kiosk 4, Image by Alan Rothman

Link.NYC WiFi Kiosk 4, Image by Alan Rothman

The initial advertisers appearing in rotation on the large digital screen include Poland Spring (see the photo at the right), MillerCoors, Pager and Citibank. Eventually “smaller tablet screens” will be added to enable users to make free domestic voice or video calls. As well, they will present maps, local activities and emergency information in and about NYC. Users will also be able to charge up their mobile devices.

However, it is still too soon to assess and quantify the actual impact on such providers. According to David Krupp, CEO, North America, for Kinetic, neither Poland Spring nor MillerCoors has produced an adequate amount of data to yet analyze their respective LinkNYC ad campaigns. (Kinetic is involved in supporting marketing activities.)

Commercializing the Kiosks

The organization managing LinkNYC, the CityBridge consortium (consisting of Qualcomm, Intersection, and Civiq Smartscapes) , is not yet indicating when the new network will progress into a more “commercial stage”. However, once the network is fully implemented with the next few years, the number of kiosks might end up being somewhere between 75,000 and 10,000. That would make it the largest such network in the world.

CityBridge is also in charge of all the network’s advertising sales. These revenues will be split with the city. Under the 12-year contract now in place, this arrangement is predicted to produce $500M for NYC, with positive cash flow anticipated within 5 years. Brad Gleeson, the chief commercial officer at Civiq, said this project depends upon the degree to which LinkNYC is “embraced by Madison Avenue” and the time need for the network to reach “critical mass”.

Because of the breadth and complexity of this project, achieving this inflection point will be quite challenging according to David Etherington, the chief strategy officer at Intersection. He expressed his firm’s “dreams and aspirations” for LinkNYC, including providing advertisers with “greater strategic and creative flexibility”, offering such capabilities as:

  • Dayparting  – dividing a day’s advertising into several segments dependent on a range of factors about the intended audience, and
  • Hypertargeting – delivering advertising to very highly defined segments of an audience

Barry Frey, the president and CEO of the Digital Place-based Advertising Association, was also along for the tour of the new kiosks on Third Avenue. He was “impressed” by the capability it will offer advertisers to “co-locate their signs and fund services to the public” for such services as free WiFi and long-distance calling.

As to the brand marketers:

  • MillerCoors is using information at each kiosk location from Shazam, for the company’s “Sounds of the Street” ad campaign which presents “lists of the most-Shazammed tunes in the area”. (For more about Shazam, see the December 10, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled Is Big Data Calling and Calculating the Tune in Today’s Global Music Market?)
  • Poland Spring is now running a 5-week campaign featuring a digital ad (as seen in the third photo above). It relies upon “the brand’s popularity in New York”.

Capturing and Interpreting the Network’s Data

Link.NYC WiFi Kiosk 1, Image by Alan Rothman

Link.NYC WiFi Kiosk 1, Image by Alan Rothman

Thus far, LinkNYC has been “a little vague” about its methods for capturing the network’s data, but has said that it will maintain the privacy of all consumers’ information. One source has indicated that LinkNYC will collect, among other points “age, gender and behavioral data”. As well, the kiosks can track mobile devices within its variably 150 to 400 WiFi foot radius to ascertain the length of time a user stops by.  Third-party data is also being added to “round out the information”.³

Some industry experts’ expectations of the value and applications of this data include:

  • Helma Larkin, the CEO of Posterscope, a New York based firm specializing in “out-of- home communications (OOH)“, believes that LinkNYC is an entirely “new out-of-home medium”. This is because the data it will generate “will enhance the media itself”. The LinkNYC initiative presents an opportunity to build this network “from the ground up”. It will also create an opportunity to develop data about its own audience.
  • David Krupp of Kinetic thinks that data that will be generated will be quite meaningful insofar as producing a “more hypertargeted connection to consumers”.

Other US and International Smart City Initiatives

Currently in the US, there is nothing else yet approaching the scale of LinkNYC. Nonetheless, Kansas City is now developing a “smaller advertiser-supported  network of kiosks” with wireless support from Sprint. Other cities are also working on smart city projects. Civiq is now in discussions with about 20 of them.

Internationally, Rio de Janeiro is working on a smart city program in conjunction with the 2016 Olympics. This project is being supported by Renato Lucio de Castro, a consultant on smart city projects. (Here is a brief video of him describing this undertaking.)

A key challenge facing all smart city projects is finding officials in local governments who likewise have the enthusiasm for efforts like LinkNYC. Michael Lake, the CEO of Leading Cities, a firm that help cities with smart city projects, believes that programs such as LinkNYC will “continue to catch on” because of the additional security benefits they provide and the revenues they can generate.

My Questions

  • Should domestic and international smart cities to cooperate to share their resources, know-how and experience for each other’s mutual benefit? Might this in some small way help to promote urban growth and development on a more cooperative global scale?
  • Should LinkNYC also consider offering civic support services such as voter registration or transportation scheduling apps as well as charitable functions where pedestrians can donate to local causes?
  • Should LinkNYC add some augmented reality capabilities to enhance the data capabilities and displays of the kiosks? (See these 10 Subway Fold posts covering a range of news and trends on this technology.)

February 19, 2017 Update:  For the latest status report on LinkNYC nearly a year after this post was first uploaded, please see After Controversy, LinkNYC Finds Its Niche, by Gerald Schifman, on CrainsNewYork.com, dated February 15, 2017.


1.   While Googling “smart cities” might nearly cause the Earth to shift off its axis with its resulting 70 million hits, I suggest reading a very informative and timely feature from the December 11, 2015 edition of The Wall Street Journal entitled As World Crowds In, Cities Become Digital Laboratories, by Robert Lee Hotz.

2.   Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia (W. W. Norton & Company, 2013), by Anthony M. Townsend, is a deep and wide book-length exploration of how big data and analytics are being deployed in large urban areas by local governments and independent citizens. I very highly recommend reading this fascinating exploration of the nearly limitless possibilities for smart cities.

3.   See, for example, How Publishers Utilize Big Data for Audience Segmentation, by Arvid Tchivzhel, posted on Datasciencecentral.com on November 17, 2015


These items just in from the Pop Culture Department: It would seem nearly impossible to film an entire movie thriller about a series of events centered around a public phone, but a movie called – – not so surprisingly – – Phone Booth managed to do this quite effectively in 2002. It stared Colin Farrell, Kiefer Sutherland and Forest Whitaker. Imho, it is still worth seeing.

Furthermore, speaking of Kiefer Sutherland, Fox announced on January 15, 2016 that it will be making 24: Legacy, a complete reboot of the 24 franchise, this time without him playing Jack Bauer. Rather, they have cast Corey Hawkins in the lead role. Hawkins can now be seen doing an excellent job playing Heath on season 6 of The Walking Dead. Watch out Grimes Gang, here comes Negan!!


Semantic Scholar and BigDIVA: Two New Advanced Search Platforms Launched for Scientists and Historians

"The Chemistry of Inversin", Image by Raymond Bryson

“The Chemistry of Inversion”, Image by Raymond Bryson

As powerful, essential and ubiquitous as Google and its search engine peers are across the world right now, needs often arise in many fields and marketplaces for platforms that can perform much deeper and wider digital excavating. So it is that two new highly specialized search platforms have just come online specifically engineered, in these cases, for scientists and historians. Each is structurally and functionally quite different from the other but nonetheless is aimed at very specific professional user bases with advanced researching needs.

These new systems provide uniquely enhanced levels of context, understanding and visualization with their results. We recently looked at a very similar development in the legal professions in an August 18, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled New Startup’s Legal Research App is Driven by Watson’s AI Technology.

Let’s have a look at both of these latest innovations and their implications. To introduce them, I will summarize and annotate two articles about their introductions, and then I will pose some additional questions of my own.

Semantic Scholar Searches for New Knowledge in Scientific Papers

First, the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence (A2I) has just launched its new system called Semantic Scholar, freely accessible on the web. This event was covered on NewScientist.com in a fascinating article entitled AI Tool Scours All the Science on the Web to Find New Knowledge on November 2, 2015 by Mark Harris.

Semantic Scholar is supported by artificial intelligence (AI)¹ technology. It is automated to “read, digest and categorise findings” from approximately two million scientific papers published annually. Its main objective is to assist researchers with generating new ideas and “to identify previously overlooked connections and information”. Because of the of the overwhelming volume of the scientific papers published each year, which no individual scientist could possibly ever read, it offers an original architecture and high-speed manner to mine all of this content.

Oren Etzioni, the director of A2I, termed Semantic Scholar a “scientist’s apprentice”, to assist them in evaluating developments in their fields. For example, a medical researcher could query it about drug interactions in a certain patient cohort having diabetes. Users can also pose their inquiries in natural language format.

Semantic Scholar operates by executing the following functions:

  • crawling the web in search of “publicly available scientific papers”
  • scanning them into its database
  • identifying citations and references that, in turn, are assessed to determine those that are the most “influential or controversial”
  • extracting “key phrases” appearing similar papers, and
  • indexing “the datasets and methods” used

A2I is not alone in their objectives. Other similar initiatives include:

Semantic Scholar will gradually be applied to other fields such as “biology, physics and the remaining hard sciences”.

BigDIVA Searches and Visualized 1,500 Year of History

The second innovative search platform is called Big Data Infrastructure Visualization Application (BigDIVA). The details about its development, operation and goals were covered in a most interesting report posted online on  NC State News on October 12, 2015 entitled Online Tool Aims to Help Researchers Sift Through 15 Centuries of Data by Matt Shipman.

This is joint project by the digital humanities scholars at NC State University and Texas A&M University. Its objective is to assist researchers in, among other fields, literature, religion, art and world history. This is done by increasing the speed and accuracy of searching through “hundreds of thousands of archives and articles” covering 450 A.D. to the present. BigDIVA was formally rolled out at NC State on October 16, 2015.

BigDIVA presents users with an entirely new visual interface, enabling them to search and review “historical documents, images of art and artifacts, and any scholarship associated” with them. Search results, organized by categories of digital resources, are displayed in infographic format4. The linked NC State News article includes a photo of this dynamic looking interface.

This system is still undergoing beta testing and further refinement by its development team. Expansion of its resources on additional historical periods is expected to be an ongoing process. Current plans are to make this system available on a subscription basis to libraries and universities.

My Questions

  • Might the IBM Watson, Semantic Scholar, DARPA and BigDIVA development teams benefit from sharing design and technical resources? Would scientists, doctors, scholars and others benefit from multi-disciplinary teams working together on future upgrades and perhaps even new platforms and interface standards?
  • What other professional, academic, scientific, commercial, entertainment and governmental fields would benefit from these highly specialized search platforms?
  • Would Google, Bing, Yahoo and other commercial search engines benefit from participating with the developers in these projects?
  • Would proprietary enterprise search vendors likewise benefit from similar joint ventures with the types of teams described above?
  • What entrepreneurial opportunities might arise for vendors, developers, designers and consultants who could provide fuller insight and support for developing customized search platforms?

 


October 19, 2017 Update: For the latest progress and applications of the Semantic Scholar system, see the latest report in a new post on the Economist.com entitled A Better Way to Search Through Scientific Papers, dated October 19, 2017.


1.  These 11 Subway Fold posts cover various AI applications and developments.

2.  These seven Subway Fold posts cover a range of IBM Watson applications and markets.

3A new history of DARPA written by Annie Jacobsen was recently published entitled The Pentagon’s Brain (Little Brown and Company, 2015).

4.  See this January 30, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled Timely Resources for Studying and Producing Infographics on this topic.

Movie Review of “The Human Face of Big Data”

"Blue and Pink Fractal", Image by dev Moore

“Blue and Pink Fractal”, Image by dev Moore

What does big data look like, anyway?

To try to find out, I was very fortunate to have obtained a pass to see a screening of a most enlightening new documentary called The Human Face of Big Data. The event was held on October 20, 2015 at Civic Hall in the Flatiron District in New York.

The film’s executive producer, Rick Smolan, (@ricksmolan), first made some brief introductory remarks about his professional work and the film we were about to see. Among his many accomplishments as a photographer and writer, he was the originator and driving force behind the A Day in the Life series of books where teams of photographers were dispatched to take pictures of different countries for each volume in such places as, among others, the United States, Japan and Spain.

He also added a whole new meaning to a having a hand in casting in his field by explaining to the audience that he had recently fallen from a try on his son’s scooter and hence his right hand was in a cast.

As the lights were dimmed and the film began, someone sitting right in front of me did something that was also, quite literally, enlightening but clearly in the wrong place and at the wrong time by opening up a laptop with a large and very bright screen. This was very distracting so I quickly switched seats. In retrospect, doing so also had the unintentional effect of providing me with a metaphor for the film: From my new perspective in the auditorium, I was seeing a movie that was likewise providing me with a whole new perspective on this important subject.

This film proceeded to provide an engrossing and informative examination of what exactly is “big data”, how it is gathered and analyzed, and its relative virtues and drawbacks.¹ It accomplished all of this by addressing these angles with segments of detailed expositions intercut with interviews of leading experts. In his comments afterwards, Mr. Smolan described big data as becoming a form of “nervous system” currently threading out across our entire planet.

Other documentarians could learn much from his team’s efforts as they smartly surveyed the Big Dataverse while economically compressing their production into a very compact and efficient package. Rather than a paint by, well, numbers production with overly long technical excursions, they deftly brought their subject to life with some excellent composition and editing of a wealth of multimedia content.

All of the film’s topics and transitions between them were appreciable evenhanded. Some segments specifically delved into how big data systems vacuum up this quantum of information and how it positively and negatively affects consumers and other demographic populations. Other passages raised troubling concerns about the loss of personal privacy in recent revelations concerning the electronic operations conducted by the government and the private sector.

I found the most compelling part of the film to be an interview with Dr. Eric Topol, (@EricTopol), a leading proponent of digital medicine, using smart phones as a medical information platform, and empowering patients to take control of their own medical data.² He spoke about the significance of the massive quantities and online availability of medical data and what this transformation  mean to everyone. His optimism and insights about big data having a genuine impact upon the quality of life for people across the globe was representative of this movie’s measured balance between optimism and caution.

This movie’s overall impression analogously reminded me of the promotional sponges that my local grocery used to hand out.  When you returned home and later added a few drops of water to these very small, flat and dried out novelties, they quickly and voluminously expanded. So too, here in just a 52-minute film, Mr. Smolan and his team have assembled a far-reaching and compelling view of the rapidly expanding parsecs of big data. All the audience needed to access, comprehend and soak up all of this rich subject matter was an open mind to new ideas.

Mr. Smolan returned to the stage after the movie ended to graciously and enthusiastically answer questions from the audience. It was clear from the comments and questions that nearly everyone there, whether they were familiar or unfamiliar with big data, had greatly enjoyed this cinematic tour of this subject and its implications. The audience’s well-informed inquiries concerned the following topics:

  • the ethics and security of big data collection
  • the degrees to which science fiction is now become science fact
  • the emergence and implications of virtual reality and augment reality with respect to entertainment and the role of big data in these productions³
  • the effects and influences of big data in medicine, law and other professions
  • the applications of big data towards extending human lifespans

Mr. Smolan also mentioned that his film will be shown on PBS in 2016. When it becomes scheduled, I very highly recommend setting some time aside to view it in its entirety.

Big data’s many conduits, trends, policies and impacts relentlessly continue to extend their global grasp. The Human Face of Big Data delivers a fully realized and expertly produced means for comprehending and evaluating this crucial and unavoidable phenomenon. This documentary is a lot to absorb yet an apt (and indeed fully app-ed), place to start.

 


One of the premiere online resources for anything and everything about movies is IMDB.com. It has just reached its 25th anniversary which was celebrated in a post in VentureBeat.com on October 30, 2015, entitled 25 Years of IMDb, the World’s Biggest Online Movie Database by Paul Sawers.


1These 44 Subway Fold Posts covered many of the latest developments in different fields, marketplaces and professions in the category of Big Data and Analytics.

2.  See also this March 3, 2015 Subway Fold post reviewing Dr. Topol’s latest book, entitled Book Review of “The Patient Will See You Now”.

3These 11 Subway Fold Posts cover many of the latest developments in the arts, sciences, and media industries in the category of Virtual and Augmented Reality. For two of the latest examples, see an article from the October 20, 2015 edition of The New York Times entitled The Times Partners With Google on Virtual Reality Project by Ravi Somaiya, and an article on Fortune.com on September 27, 2015 entitled Oculus Teams Up with 20th Century Fox to Bring Virtual Reality to Movies by Michael Addady. (I’m just speculating here, but perhaps The Human Face of Big Data would be well-suited for VR formatting and audience immersion.)

Summary of the Bitcoin Seminar Held at Kaye Scholer in New York on October 15, 2015

"Bitcoin", Image by Tiger Pixel

“Bitcoin”, Image by Tiger Pixel

The market quote for Bitcoin on October 15, 2015 at 5:00 pm EST was $255.64 US according to CoinDesk.com on the site’s Price & Data page. At that same moment, I was very fortunate to have been attending a presentation entitled the Bitcoin Seminar that was just starting at the law firm of Kaye Scholer in midtown Manhattan. Coincidentally, the firm’s address is numerically just 5.64, well, whatevers¹ away at 250 West 55th Street.

Many thanks to Kaye Scholer and the members of the expert panel for putting together this outstanding presentation. My appreciation and admiration as well for the informative content and smart formatting in the accompanying booklet they provided to the audience.

Based upon the depth and dimensions of all that was learned from the speakers, everyone attending gained a great deal of knowledge and insight on the Bitcoin phenomenon. The speakers clearly and concisely surveyed its essential technologies, operations, markets, regulations and trends.

This was the first of a two-part program the firm is hosting. The second half, covering the blockchain, is scheduled on Thursday, November 5, 2015.

The panelists included:

The following are my notes from this 90-minute session:

1.  What is a “Virtual Currency” and the Infrastructure Supporting It?

  • Bitcoin is neither legal tender nor tied to a particular nation.
  • Bitcoin is the first means available to move value online without third-party trusted intermediaries.
  • Bitcoin involves a series of decentralized protocols, consisting entirely of software, for the transfer of value between parties.
  • Only 21 million Bitcoins will ever be created but they are highly divisible into much smaller units unit called “satoshis” (named after the mysterious and still anonymous creator of Bitcoin who goes by the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto).
  • The network structure for these transfers is peer-to-peer, as well as transparent and secure.
  • Bitcoin is a genuine form of “cryptocurrency”, also termed “digital currency”²
  • The networks use strong encryption to secure the value and information being transferred.
  • The parties engaged in a Bitcoin transaction often intend for their virtual currency to be converted into actual fiat currency.

2.  Benefits of Bitcoin

  • Payments can be sent anywhere including internationally.
  • Transactions are borderless and can operate on a 24/7 basis.
  • Just like email, the network operates all the time.

3.  Bitcoin Mining and Bitcoin Miners

  • This is the process by which, and the people by whom, bitcoins are extracted and placed into circulation online.
  • “Miners” are those who use vast amounts of computing power to solve complex mathematical equations that, once resolved, produce new Bitcoins.
  • The miners’ motivations include:
    • the introduction of new Bitcoins
    • their roles as transaction validators and maintainers of the blockchain
  • All newly mined bitcoins need to be validated.
  • Minors are rewarded for their efforts with the bitcoins they extract and any additional fees that were volunteered along with pending transactions.
  • Miners must obey the network’s protocols during the course of their work.

4.  Security

  • Security is the central concern of all participants in Bitcoin operations.
  • Notwithstanding recent bad publicity concerning incidents and indictments for fraud (such as Mt. Gox), the vast majority of bitcoin transactions do not involve illegal activity.
  • The Bitcoin protocols prevent Bitcoins from being spent twice.
  • Measures are in place to avoid cryptography keys from being stolen or misused.
  • There is a common misconception that Bitcoin activity is anonymous. This is indeed not the case, as all transactions are recorded on the blockchain thus enabling anyone to look up the data.
  • Bitcoin operations and markets are becoming more mature and, in turn, relatively more resistant to potential threats.

5.  Using Bitcoins

  • Bitcoin is secured by individual crypto-keys which are required for “signing” in a transaction or exchange.
  • This system is distributed and individual keys are kept in different locations.
  • Once a transaction is “signed” it then goes online into the blockchain ledger³.
  • The crypto keys are highly secure to avoid tampering or interception by unintended parties.
  • Bitcoin can be structured so that either:
    • multiple keys are required to be turned at the same time on both sides of the transaction, or
    • only a single key is required to execute a transaction.
  • By definition, there are no traditional intermediaries (such as banks).

6.  Asset Custody and Valuation

  • Financial regulators see Bitcoin as being a money transmission.
  • Currently, the law says nothing about multi-keys (above).
  • Work is being done on drafting new model legislation in an attempt to define “custody” of Bitcoin as an asset.
  • Bitcoin services in the future will be programmatic and will not require the trusted third parties. For example, in a real estate transaction, if the parties agree to terms then the keys are signed. If not, an arbitrator can be used to turn the keys for the parties and complete the transaction. Thus, this method can be a means to perform settlements in the real world.
  • Auditing this process involves public keys with custodial ownership. In determining valuation, the question is whether “fair value” has been reached and agreed upon.
  • From an asset allocation perspective, it is instructive to compare Bitcoin to gold insofar as there is no fixed amount of gold in the world, but Bitcoin will always be limited to 21 million Bitcoins (see 1. above).

7.  US Regulatory Environment

  • Because of the Bitcoin market’s rapid growth in the past few years, US federal and state regulators have become interested and involved.
  • Bitcoin itself is not regulated. Rather, the key lies at the “chokepoints” in the system where Bitcoin is turned into fiat currency.
  • US states regulate the money transfer business. Thus, compliance is also regulated by state laws. For example, New York State’s Department of Financial Services issues a license for certain service companies in the Bitcoin market operating within the state called a BitLicense. California is currently considering similar legislation.
  • Federal money laundering laws must always be obeyed in Bitcoin transactions.
  • The panelists agreed that it is important for Bitcoin legislation is to protect innovation in this marketplace.
  • The Internal Revenue Service has determined Bitcoin to be a tangible personal asset. As a result, Bitcoin is an investment subject to capital gains. As well, it will be taxed if used to pay for goods and services

8.  Future Prospects and Predictions

  • Current compelling use cases for Bitcoin include high volume of cross-border transactions and areas of the world without stable governments.
  • Bitcoin’s success is not now a matter of if, but rather, when. It could eventually take the emergence of some form of Bitcoin 2.0 to ultimately succeed.
  • Currency is now online and is leading to innovations such as:
    • Programmable money and other new formats of digital currency.
    • Rights management for music services where royalties are sent directly to the artists. (See Footnote 3 below.)

9.  Ten Key Takeaway Points:

  • Bitcoin is a virtual currency but it is not anonymous.
  • The key legal consideration is that it involves a stateless but trusted exchange of value.
  • Bitcoin “miners” are creating the value and increasing in their computing sophistication to locate and solve equations to extract Bitcoins.
  • Security is the foremost concern of everyone involved with Bitcoin.
  • Because Bitcoin exchanges of value occur and settle quickly and transparently (on the blockchain ledger), there are major implications for online commerce and the securities markets.
  • Government regulators are now significantly involved and there are important distinctions between what the states and federal government can regulate.
  • The IRS has made a determination about the nature of Bitcoin as an asset, and its taxable status in paying for goods and services.
  • The crypto-keys and “multi-signing” process are essential to making Bitcoin work securely, with neither borders nor third-party intermediaries.
  • Real estate transactions seem to be well-suited for the blochchain (for example, recording mortgages).
  • Comparing Bitcoin to gold (as a commodity), can be instructive in understanding the nature of Bitcoin.

 


1.   Is there a conversion formula, equivalency or terminology for the transposition of address numerals into Bitcoin? If one soon emerges, it will add a whole new meaning to the notion of “street value”.

2See also this May 8, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled Book Review of “The Age of Cryptocurrency”.

3.  For two examples of other non-Bitcoin adaptations of blockchain technology (among numerous other currently taking place), see the August 21, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled Two Startups’ Note-Worthy Efforts to Adapt Blockchain Technology for the Music Industry and the September 10, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled Vermont’s Legislature is Considering Support for Blockchain Technology and Smart Contracts.

NASA is Providing Support for Musical and Humanitarian Projects

"NASA - Endeavor 2", Image by NASA

“NASA – Endeavor 2”, Image by NASA

In two recent news stories, NASA has generated a world of good will and positive publicity about itself and its space exploration program. It would be an understatement to say their results have been both well-grounded and out of this world.

First, NASA astronaut Chris Hadfield created a vast following for himself online when he uploaded a video onto YouTube of him singing David Bowie’s classic Space Oddity while on a mission on the International Space Station (ISS).¹ As reported on the October 7, 2015 CBS Evening News broadcast, Hadfield will be releasing an album of 12 songs he wrote and performed in space, today on October 9. 2015. He also previously wrote a best-selling book entitled An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything (Little, Brown and Company, 2013). I highly recommend checking out his video, book and Twitter account @Cmdr_Hadfield.

What a remarkably accomplished career in addition to his becoming an unofficial good will ambassador for NASA.

The second story, further enhancing the agency’s reputation, concerns a very positive program affecting many lives that was reported in a most interesting article on Wired.com on September 28, 2015 entitled How NASA Data Can Save Lives From Space by Issie Lapowsky. I will summarize and annotate it, and then pose some my own terrestrial questions.

Agencies’ Partnership

According to a NASA administrator Charles Bolden, astronauts frequently look down at the Earth from space and realize that borders across the world are subjectively imposed by warfare or wealth. These dividing lines between nations seem to become less meaningful to them while they are in flight. Instead, the astronauts tend to look at the Earth and have a greater awareness everyone’s responsibilities to each other. Moreover, they wonder what they can possibly do when they return to make some sort of meaningful difference on the ground.

Bolden recently shared this experience with an audience at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in Washington, DC, to explain the reasoning behind a decade-long partnership between NASA and USAID. (This latter is the US government agency responsible for the administration of US foreign aid.) At first, this would seem to be an unlikely joint operation between two government agencies that do not seem to have that much in common.

In fact, this combination provides “a unique perspective on the grave need that exists in so many places around the world”, and a special case where one agency sees it from space and the other one sees it on the ground.

They are joined together into a partnership known as SERVIR where NASA supplies “imagery, data, and analysis” to assist developing nations.  They help these countries with forecasting and dealing “with natural disasters and the effects of climate change”.

Partnership’s Results

Among others, SERVIR’s tools have produced the following representative results:

  • Predicting floods in Bangladesh that gives citizens a total of eight days notice in order to make preparations that will save lives. This reduced the number to 17 during the last year’s monsoon season whereas previously it had been in the thousands.
  • Predicting forest fires in the Himalayas.
  • For central America, NASA created  a map of ocean chlorophyll concentration that assisted public officials in identifying and improving shellfish testing in order to deal with “micro-algae outbreaks” responsible for causing significant health issues.

SERVIR currently operates in 30 countries. As a part of their network, there are regional hubs working with “local partners to implement the tools”. Last week it opened such a hub in Asia’s Mekong region. Both NASA and USAID are hopeful that the number of such hubs will continue to grow.

Google is also assisting with “life saving information from satellite imagery”. They are doing this by applying artificial intelligence (AI)² capabilities to Google Earth. This project is still in its preliminary stages.

My Questions

  • Should SERVIR reach out to the space agencies and humanitarian organizations of other countries to explore similar types of humanitarian joint ventures?
  • Do the space agencies of other countries have similar partnerships with their own aid agencies?
  • Would SERVIR benefit from partnerships with other US government agencies? Similarly, would it benefit from partnering with other humanitarian non-governmental organizations (NGO)?
  • Would SERVIR be the correct organization to provide assistance in global environmental issues? Take for example the report on the October 8, 2015 CBS Evening News network broadcast of the story about the bleaching of coral reefs around the world.

 


1.  While Hatfield’s cover and Bowie’s original version of Space Oddity are most often associated in pop culture with space exploration, I would like to suggest another song that also captures this spirit and then truly electrifies it: Space Truckin’ by Deep Purple. This appeared on their Machine Head album which will be remembered for all eternity because it included the iconic Smoke on the Water. Nonetheless, Space Truckin‘ is, in my humble opinion, a far more propulsive tune than Space Oddity. Its infectious opening riff will instantly grab your attention while the rest of the song races away like a Saturn Rocket reaching for escape velocity. Furthermore, the musicianship on this recording is extraordinary. Pay close attention to Richie Blackmore’s scorching lead guitar and Ian Paice’s thundering drums. Come on, let’s go space truckin’!

2. These eight Subway Fold posts cover AI from a number of different perspectives involving a series of different applications and markets.