The Nature of Privacy

data privacyThe recent publications in the Guardian about NSA access to Google, Facebook, Yahoo and all the rest have been met with a flurry of leftist abhorrence and mutterings from the twittering, as opposed to the twitter, classes.  However, all reports refer to access to data, in such a way as to make people think that their personal emails and photos and so on are being read by the NSA, or their computers – this is not the case.  Because the media is governed by soundbites, polemic and an absence of nuance, the headline is that the security services have access to data.  The truth is, they don’t need or want access to the data.  They need the models. And this allows the internet companies to deny they are granting access to the data.

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Data is Money. Not like money, or as good as money. It is money.

(reminder and disclaimer – I work for IBM, but these are personal comments)

Almost three years ago, in Febraury 2010 (yeah, I know – three years!) the Economist ran a supplement called “The Data Deluge“, about Big Data and how it was transforming businesses all over the world.  In the middle of the supplement was an article called ‘Clicking for Gold‘, in which there’s a quote from Tim O’Reilly, who says that companies like Google, Amazon and Facebook ‘…are uncomfortable bringing so much attention to this because it is at the heart of their competitive advantage. Data are the coin of the realm. They have a big lead over other companies that do not ‘get’ this.’  For the intervening time, I’ve been quoting this to telcos all over the world, and they nod their heads, and – for the most part – don’t do much about it.

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Can the internet keep up?

Spent an hour or so reading a great report on theSpider web in rainState of the Internet” by Analysys Mason for the Internet Society. It is a rebuttal to those who think the Internet is falling apart, needs fixing including the proposed shift to ‘sending network pays’.

The document is an excellent primer of the state of the internet today, the crucial role of IXPs and how historically three forces, technology, investment and changes in traffic flows have collectively met the challenge of the exploding use of the internet.

A good case in point, caught the tale end of a report on my local NPR station about how researchers at MIT and elsewhere that uses an algebraic equation to reconstitute dropped packets thereby removing data congestion bottlenecks.  The results are very impressive to quote:

Testing the system on Wi-Fi networks at MIT, where 2 percent of packets are typically lost, Medard’s group found that a normal bandwidth of one megabit per second was boosted to 16 megabits per second. In a circumstance where losses were 5 percent—common on a fast-moving train—the method boosted bandwidth from 0.5 megabits per second to 13.5 megabits per second. In a situation with zero losses, there was little if any benefit, but loss-free wireless scenarios are rare. [source]

Looks as if the internet will be around for a couple more years after all.

Analytics Matters

Yesterday I watched a TED talk on Lessons from Death Row, where a death penalty lawyer talked about how death sentences were reducing in number because death penalty lawyers were intervening earlier and earlier in the process.  It was easier to avoid the sentence than to correct it, was the logic.  Mr Dow went a step further, however, and said that intervention should happen even sooner – before the murder was committed – because the stories of these guys on death row are 80% the same – broken homes, juvenile justice, and so on.  Appropriate, early intervention could save the lives of these people, and of course their future victims.  In essence, he was saying that everything was predictable.

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“It’s a fact”–what we can learn from Mona Lisa Vito

I have been a fan of “My Cousin Vinny” for yearsmycousin and I must admit to guilty pleasure watching it for the umpteenth time when it does its semi-annual rounds on late night TV. Reading a couple of blog posts recently, I was reminded of my favourite scene where the antagonistic Ms. Vito, acting as an expert in general automotive knowledge,  wins the day by looking at photograph and turns the whole case for the defense…

Vinny Gambini: How could you be so sure?
Mona Lisa Vito: Because there is no way that these tire marks were made by a 1964 Buick Skylark convertible. These marks were made by a 1963 Pontiac Tempest.
D.A. Jim Trotter: Objection, Your Honor! Can we clarify to the court whether the witness is stating opinion or fact?
Judge Chamberlain Haller: [to Lisa] This is your opinion, or is it a fact?
Mona Lisa Vito: It’s a fact!

The full scene is at the bottom of this post….

The first post was from boingboing about the use of experts in understanding the Japanese nuclear event at Fukushima. The point made by the article was that an expert in one field is not an expert in another. In particular, while an expert in risk management can provide valuable insight on a problem of this magnitude to understand what is going on, you really should ask a nuclear scientist.

It has become a pet peeve of mine that we (the media) treat people as experts without ever considering, do they have any expertise in the subject at hand. I even felt sorry for Sarah Palin, when she was thrust in the limelight by John McCain and she was supposed to have all the foreign policy answers. An expert in public speaking does not equal an expert in the constitution, foreign policy or community service.

So what are we supposed to do about all this. This is where the second blog post comes in. Ben Goldacre in the Guardian had an article titled A case of never letting the source spoil a good story where he details various examples of journalists getting it all wrong where a check of the source material would have saved a lot of erroneous ink and spreading of falsehoods. I think his conclusion is right on

Of course, this is a problem that generalises well beyond science. Over and again, you read comment pieces that purport to be responding to an earlier piece, but distort the earlier arguments, or miss out the most important ones: they count on it being inconvenient for you to check. There’s also an interesting difference between different media: most bloggers have no institutional credibility, so they must build it by linking transparently and allowing you to double-check their work easily.

But more than anything, because linking to sources is such an easy thing to do and the motivations for avoiding links are so dubious, I’ve detected myself using a new rule of thumb: if you don’t link to primary sources, I just don’t trust you.

So the moral of the story is, if the article or blog post that  you are reading has no links to primary sources – then it is just opinion not fact.

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Music video of the future ??

Came across this collaboration between Google, arcade fire and film maker Chris Milk. It is a mash-up of Arcade Fire’s song “We Used to Wait”, a location (where you grew up, went to school, etc.) and Google maps/earth. It is optimized for Google Chrome and is a multi-window experience.

Here is an example, based on my old English grammar school. [link]. Check it out, put in your address. What I really like is how it makes something quite impersonal, the music video, relevant by basing what is shown on your input.

Screen capture of [link]:

arcade fire film

The future is behing you, lurking….and it knows what you’re going to say next.

I can't let you do that, Dave.

Computers are getting faster, more powerful, and smaller.  They are becoming ubiquitous, they are personal and “in-machine”, they are borrowed, stolen, manipulated, pimped, and applied in many different ways.  They are in televisions, toasters and theatres.  They are in shock absorbers, shops and shared resources like internet cafés.  But fast, small, everywhere doesn’t necessarily mean smarter.  It’s easier for us to talk wirelessly now, because of mobile phones.  It’s easier for us to work from home, because of network improvements.  But that’s all stuff we used to do anyway.  So where is the “smart”?  Where is the “clever”?  Where is the “ahaaaa…”?

Maybe it’s enough that stuff gets smaller, faster, cheaper.  That means we can do more stuff, and therefore we’re more productive.  But smart means that we actually don’t have to do stuff anymore.  Like looking things up.  Making connections.  Applying personality, or relevance to technology.  Like search, for example.  If we’re looking for stuff, we need to search for it.  Sometimes we don’t know what we’re looking for either, until we learn about it – or see an ad.  Sometimes, suggestion is all we need…

A few years ago (almost four years ago, in fact) BusinessWeek published a front page article called “Math Will Rock Your World“.  Just as the quants had changed finance in the mid 1990s, now they were looking at other things, like advertising, propensity modelling, and other forms of knowing.  And it is this knowing that has the potential to transform, well, stuff.  What does knowing mean?  What does awareness bring?  We’re not quite talking about sentience here, but if we combine predictive analytics with context awareness, we can get pretty close.  Statistically speaking, really, really close.

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