DataSift: New Frontiers in Search

Sarah Blow is a computer science graduate of Manchester University in England. Sarah is now working on bringing DataSift through its alpha testing phase in preparation for wider use. The filtering technology underpinning DataSift allows for highly refined searches to be able to take place across a selection of social networking platforms.

Five years ago, in her spare time, Sarah founded Girl Geek Dinners to alleviate the isolation that many women may feel while working in what is still a male dominated tech industry.

How did DataSift come to be?

“DataSift is pretty much the back end system that powers TweetMeme. We wanted to rebuild the engine that because we knew we could do more with it. Rather than changing TweetMeme, we created this new brand called DataSift.

Who is it for?

“The types of people we are bringing in are big financial services companies, anyone looking to do marketing and marketing analysis, agencies that are looking after brands and so on. Pretty much anything you can think of where you want to find deeper layers of information.

“While it is in alpha we are looking mainly for developers but with the mindset of bringing anyone in who is filtering and creating content. We want to find out what their needs are beyond the basics of what we’ve got there at the moment.

“We have basically asked, ”What do people want to do with the system?” And now we are looking at ways of packaging it so it can work in the right ways for different groups of users.”

What do people use it for?

“We’ve seen people use it for geo-targeting and geo-mapping content in order to find about particular brands and track them. Also, people use it to find out where their users are based. They can also find the most influential users within their particular market.

  • Use example: San Francisco 49ers

    “For TechCrunch disrupt we demonstrated the capability of DataSift by using publicly available information from a San Francisco 49ers game that was happening that weekend.

    “There were three rules which we set up 24 hours in advance.”

    • Data Collection: “We first created a base rule. That was pulling in information from everyone from at Candlestick Park. Anyone who mentioned the name San Francisco 49ers and anyone who mentioned any of the players from the 49ers and the opposing team.

      “There was no geo data in that in that filtered stream.”

    • Geo-location: “From there we built a second rule on top. Taking all the output from the first rule we said, “Right, now we want anything in San Francisco.” So, if someone has set their Twitter location to San Francisco we could pick them up including their tweets about that particular subject but only that subject.”
    • Geo-targeting: “Then we decided, that’s good, but it’s not perfect. What we really want to know is who is in the Park that’s really seeing the cool stuff. Can we manage to get some twitpics, for example, from inside the Park from people who were actually there?

      “The only way you can verify they are really in the Park is if they are actually geo-located in the Park. So we have an option on DataSift to do a single point and set a radius around it. We found the geo-target for Candlestick Park and set a one kilometre radius around it which pretty much covers that area and anyone just outside the stadium.

      “But it didn’t come back with much at all. It literally came back with one user and they hadn’t done any photographs. They had just tweeted that they were there.”

    That only one user was returned according to the parameters that were set up is very interesting in itself. It would have been reasonably valid to have guessed far more returns. It is always worthwhile to remember that what one assumes about a situation and what really happens may be two entirely different things.

    This is why having better tools to be able to really drill down into the data and to refine and define the results is so vitally important.

  • Use example: Starbucks

    “We were based in San Francisco at the time. So we tried a different exercise using DataSift where we basically said, “We want to find anyone in Starbucks who has got a PeerIndex score of over 40.” Let’s see who the influential people were in San Francisco at that time and find out which Starbucks they are in today. That was a fun one to do. “

“You could do something similar with breaking news. If you knew there was a story breaking in a particular location and you are a news organisation and you want to filter down to find who the actual, legitimate sources were that were actually really in that location using DataSift would certainly be one way of doing it.”

What is the next step?

“We are aiming to have a drag and drop interface which we haven’t finished yet. Users who don’t necessarily have a strong technical ability and an understanding of the technicalities of it don’t need to. They shouldn’t need to have to have that level of detail to use the system.

“The FSDL language that we have got there we only really expect to be used by developers. It is not really aimed at the general user. But while DataSift is in alpha we’ll teach the general users how to use it in case we take a bit longer doing the other side of it.”

The work being done by Sarah and the DataSift team is promising to be a cutting edge development in information retrieval. If you want to help with their alpha testing you can still sign up at DataSift.

Technology Voice: The Best of 2010

As we approach the end of year break we thought we would take the opportunity to share with you our greatest hits of 2010. We had to apply a weighting system to account for the fact that a lot of our older posts are still being searched for shared and read.

We have also added a little behind the scenes paragraph or two to illustrate various points that might not have been obvious from the original articles. So let’s start at the most read first:

  • Number one: Linked Data: An Introduction

    The simple aim of this article is to make the ideas and technology around Linked Data more accessible. The idea of approaching the subject from an imaginary Q&A perspective enabled us to avoid the constant use of acronyms in the main body of the text. (There is a glossary with links at the end.)

    We wanted to be able to describe the work that is going in the development of the Semantic Web in as conversational a manner in terms of style as possible. We thought it would be more easily assimilated by the curious and the interested but who perhaps were either not that technically inclined or unfamiliar with this area of technological development.

  • Number two: Lin Clark On Why Drupal Matters

    Lin really saved my bacon the day we did this interview. It was four in the afternoon and all my scheduled interviews for the afternoon had fallen through. On the off-chance I gave her a call and put in a request for an interview and she said, “Sure.” The outcome: A really great interview that required almost no editing.

    We are looking forward to interviewing her again in the New Year to talk about Drupal 7.

  • Number Three: Who’s “Most Tweeted” In The Irish Twitterverse?

    How can one explain the popularity of this post? “Vanity is All” Ecclesiastes, perhaps.

  • Number Four: Blaine Cook Introduces Us To Webfinger

    Blaine gave a terrific talk at BlogTalk 2010 here in Galway. However, I interviewed him a few days later when he was in England and the connection was not the best. Probably the shoutiest interview ever. Hopefully next time we chat it will be in somewhat more genteel circumstances.

  • Number Five: Virtual 3D Galway

    Probably our find of the year. As I passed by Realsim‘s office late in the evening I kept seeing Eoghan Quigley working away at his computer. Finally, curiosity got the better of me and I knocked on the door and introduced myself. He showed me what he was doing – creating a Virtual 3D Galway.

    What was even more amazing was to discover the years of solid work put in by Gavin Duffy in painstakingly photographing every street, house and building in the central area of town.

    Even if you don’t know Galway it is really worth watching the fly-through video.

  • Number Six: The Virtual World Of Gifted Kids

    This was probably the most fun assignment of the year. It was just wonderful to see the children’s response to the virtual world technology adapted and developed by Irish company Daynuv.

    It is really worth watching the video in conjunction with the story. In the text you have the adult, grown up story and in the video you have only the children’s perspective. Two different approaches to the same story but they work together very nicely.

    NB: The video was shot on an iPhone because I felt the loss in quality was more than made up by removing the distractions that come from having a larger more obtrusive camera.

  • Number Seven: Number Eight: Interview With John Hartnett: ITLG Brings Silicon Valley To Ireland

    John and his team are doing a remarkable job of creating and cementing the links between Ireland and Silicon Valley. The ITLG conference that took place in Limerick in November was very successful in this respect.

    It was important to be able to introduce Irish Entrepreneurs to Silicon Valley capital in the form of the visiting VCs. Also, equally important in many ways was the enhanced recognition that ITLG brought for the need to have closer ties between the public sector in the form of research universities and the private sector.

  • Number Eight: Interview: Cisco’s Carlos Dominguez: “Cooperation Is The Killer App”

    The interview conducted by Telepresence with Carlos in New Jersey, USA and myself in Galway, Ireland will probably be as close as I’ll ever get to experiencing the holodeck from Star Trek.

  • Number Nine: “Galway Is A Mini San Francisco”: 091 Labs Nurtures Creativity In Another Bay Area

    We, at Technology Voice, are big fans of 091 Labs in Galway. Every town, no matter how big or small, should have something like it. There is no excuse really. People just have to get together, decide what they are going to do and get on with it.

    From a coffee table in March, to a fabulous location in June, to being just about sustainable from subscriptions in September – the creation of this hackerspace has to be one of the year’s triumphs.

  • Number Ten:How To Influence On Twitter: Research Results From New Algorithm Give Guidance

    We would like to thank Bernardo Huberman from HP Labs for really taking the time to explain the research on Twitter that is being done in Palo Alto. From one interview we ended up with three different articles, this being the first in the series.

  • Number Eleven: Arduino: A Big Revolution In A Small Package

    Nobody really knows what the future will hold but it is certain that the Arduino and uses it will be put to will play an ever-increasing role. It allows those with the minimum of technical ability to make really cool ideas possible. It breaks down a very important barrier between having an idea and being able to express it as best as one can.

  • We are not going to disappear over the holiday period. We will still be posting articles and blogs, just not on a consistent daily basis. Full service should resume very shortly into the New Year.

Mashable: From Social Media Guide to News Titan

Brian Dresher is Director for Business Development at Mashable. Prior to this he was with USA Today for five years where he was responsible for managing social media strategy and digital partnerships. While at USA Today Brian helped to create a content syndication partnership for Mashable content with USA Today which provided a way for USA Today to be able to grow its content inventory and add greater value to its on site visitors and its advertisers.

It was during this period that he was able to see the value that Mashable was able to provide, not only to its existing fan base but also in its ability to tap into mainstream media. He was also able to witness the evolution of Mashable from being a purely social media enterprise into becoming a much broader based media company.

The boundaries between offline and online media no longer seem to be so clearly defined. How do you see the two areas of activity combining?

“It’s fascinating, certainly now that I have been on both sides of that coin so to speak. On the USA Today side, being able to reach out to a younger demographic and really having a deeper connection with other leaders in that space was very important. By syndicating in partnership with Mashable we were able to do this in ways other than by just having a meaningful presence on traditional social networks like Twitter, Facebook and others.

“On the Mashable side it is being able to position ourselves as being a highly credible source of news by partnering with major brands such as USA Today, CNN and Forbes. By doing so we are able to show that these major brands have stated that our content is worthy enough to sit alongside their own proprietary content and that it has value for their audience.”

How is Mashable evolving?

“Mashable is now in its sixth year so it is established. Maybe not as established when placed alongside the New York Times. However, relative to many other online publications Mashable is well entrenched and well known for what it has been able to do.

“We are now at the point where we are able to produce thirty unique posts every business day. We still have a hundred percent proprietary content produced. Compare that to traditional media outlets such as USA Today, Washington Post, New York Times and so on who pull in a lot of their posts from third party sources such as AP and Reuters.

“We are certainly bulking up the amount of content to be on a level to be competitive with some of the traditional sites in terms of quantity and quality. Our recent hires who have been brought in from established media brands have been able to introduce some processes, structure and strategy that maybe hadn’t always been part of the DNA here. As Mashable moves into this next stage of growth it helps to bring in some of this seasoned experience.”

“In the same regard we now do our own investigative journalism. We are not going to be sending a journalist to Iraq or Afghanistan to understand what is taking place in those areas. It’s certainly on a different level to that. But we certainly cover what the future of social media and politics looks like. We do a significant number of interviews and research that goes behind putting that type of feature together.”

Where is Mashable heading?

“The more we are able to build ourselves up as a media organization the more it just continues to lend further credibility to what we are doing. What we are starting to see is a transformation of perception amongst our audience, and perhaps even with advertisers, that we are not just a blog. We are able to develop content and have access to high profile individuals in the tech space that no one else is able to get.

“Overall we’re of the purpose to make technology, social media, gadgets accessible, embraceable, understandable by various audiences. We certainly have our continued coverage of what HTML 5 means for app developers which certainly won’t appeal to the mass audience. On the other hand we also do reporting on how to leverage Twitter as a customer service tool or how to use Facebook to conduct a job search.

“If you look at those two different types of content pieces, one is HTML 5 which it tech heavy and much more early adopter focused and the other which can apply to a much wider audience because of the ubiquity of Facebook you can see how we are able to reach different types of audience with different types of content.

“We don’t have to be one thing for one group of people. We can be many things to various groups and I think that is what has helped to foster our growth and nurture it by having that type of diversification.”

How do you manage for that change?

“We are very mindful about managing the amount of bells and whistles that appear on the site and having to appropriately balance the opportunity for the monetization that may come with adding a new bell or whistle or another type of button that adds another user engagement feature against the user experience and the look and feel of the site. It is something that we are constantly balancing.

“One of my roles at business development is to help facilitate those types of communications within the organisation to make sure that for any new type of opportunity that we have the appropriate input and stakeholders who can say, “This gets a green light from the editorial side for being commensurate with what we produce but maybe it gets a red flag from IT because the page weight might be too heavy and might not load adequately.”

Mashable may have started out as blog produced in Aberdeen, Scotland but with the experience garnered from developing symbiotic relationships with already existing mainstream media outfits it has firmly established itself as a major media player.

Mashable reaches a demography that advertisers crave for, younger people with low commitments and relatively large disposable incomes. Added to that, by hiring experience as well as enthusiasm it is already becoming the online publication of record with regards the coverage of social media and related fields.

Mashable has been doing a lot of the right things in the right way for some time now and it will be interesting to see what lies ahead in the future.

Cisco Quad: A Social Network for the Business Enterprise

Quad is Cisco’s enterprise collaboration platform. It is a system where the social tools that are widely used in Facebook and Twitter and other social networks such as; newsfeeds, groups, relationships with friends and followers, contacts and the ability to be able to see activities that other people in our social network are doing, have been adapted to meet the demands of the business world. The emphasis here, however, is more on enterprise than social network.

The social networking capability that we are used to having with Facebook or Twitter has been enabled for integration with the enterprise systems that nearly all businesses have, and which already deal with the demands of CRM systems, document management and numerous other tasks.

Cisco developed Quad because they found that there was a need to provide integration between social networking and the requirement to maintain commercial security and fulfill various legal compliances. It was time to bring social media into the grown-up world. Quad transforms the idea of social network systems from being a fun tool to stay in touch with family and friends to a cutting edge business tool to aid communication and productivity.

Keith Griffin, Lead Architect of the Enterprise Collaboration Platform at Cisco, is based in Galway, Ireland. The Cisco site there is heavily involved in the field of unified communications: the combining of video, audio, instant messaging, online meetings and other collaborative solutions. Using their knowledge and experience, the team in Galway were able to make a large contribution to the work being done on the core development of Quad taking place in San Jose, California.

As Keith explains, “What we are doing here is adding horizontal social interconnectivity to a vertical directory structure. You can see in my profile (pictured above and below) that I have got directory information here. You can see my latest microblog about a research meeting that took place the night before last and my recent blogs and tags which I share with everyone else. If people want to go to this page, they can see all this. It is not just a static web page. It’s a full Web 2.0 environment.

“In the directory, I can see the reporting line. You can see all the people I am following in the directory. If I hover over anybody on the list here, I can see for example that so and so is not following, but this person is. That’s the difference between the ‘following’ model and the ‘friend’ model. If both people follow each other they are friends.

“When we did this integration (at one point there was in excess of a hundred thousand people participating,) the social activity was immense. As soon as people could see where they were in the directory and where they related to other people, they started sending friend requests and following requests.

“It just showed to me that vertical integration remains the backbone of the organisation, but it’s of limited value without this horizontal social activity because that represents the interactions that people do in real life, and in the virtual teams they work with, and so on.”

As it was felt that people have a little more to say in the business world, Quad uses 400 characters in its microposts. There is also the ability to have a ‘watch list’ where a separate filter of the main feed’s social activities can be displayed. This can allow the watch list to be used as a de facto to-do list. It gives the user the ability to respond to the news, requests and information that is most pertinent and relevant to them.

How easy does Quad make it to access the vast and varied amount of resources and expertise that a company like Cisco has?

“A big trend that we borrowed from the Web is the concept of social relevance. If I am an expert on something and I offer an opinion or write a blog, that tends to be given a pretty heavy weighting. If someone offers an opinion and perhaps they don’t have a background in a certain area, then it tends to stay as an opinion with a lesser weighting.

“In a social network, because you get to see all the activities, you can see who is active in any particular area. Over time, if people aren’t getting the answers that they expect from somebody who has been represented with having those skills, then in a system like this you would see less social activity associated with those topics for those people. So their relevance and ranking overall can drop.

How is Quad modeled?

“What we have done here is modeled our entire system on people, communities and information. Those are the three dimensions of the system.

“If I search for something like the Semantic Web, which is something we research quite deeply with the people at DERI, it will bring us back a three-dimensional search result. We’re not doing anything special with search, but what we are doing is interpreting the results in the context of social network rather than in the context of a keyword search on a number of documents.

“What it is about is providing a richness of information in any given search.”

A natural by product of social activity is the creation of communities. How are they handled?

“When people have a certain interest and that’s an ongoing interest, whether it is a project or it could be a sales campaign or a feature that they are working on, they can set up a community. The community can have a number of owners and contributors. We can have wikis and other Web 2.0 tools of the sort which you would expect, as everything running here is completely within a browser environment.

“Just like on the Web, crowdsourcing in an enterprise is significant as well. It is not just based on the hierarchy of our team. Anybody can come in and contribute their ideas. We use the crowd within our own organisation to get things done.”

While Cisco and companies like Cisco have been using instant messaging technology in preference to emails and telephone conversations for a number of years, particularly in the areas of engineering and software development, there is a major benefit to be had in harnessing one of the real powers of social media – persistence.

Persistence means that a message is kept alive and relevant because it can be seen in the context of its usefulness and relevance by the people engaged with that conversation. Important ideas don’t get lost in emails or are forgotten to be passed on after isolated conversations on telephones.

As it is easier to see the relationship between different messages and their place in the context of activity, it makes it easier to obtain a better perspective on what has already happened, and as a consequence be more appropriately placed to make better decisions about what to do next.

How does Quad help with the issue of time zones in a company as large as Cisco?

“I work an awful lot with San Jose and I am not sure if I could get through my day without Quad. As soon as I come in, I get a snapshot of all my colleagues and all the projects and technologies they are working on.

“It’s not as good as the coffee machine conversation, but I can get a sense of what is going on. The alternative is reading lots and lots of individual emails which doesn’t give me the same context or the same conversational view.”

A tool or a piece of software will only go so far. There has to be a desire for a company to collaborate and want to work together. There is an organisational and business process that needs to happen with this technology as well. Software, as ever, is just a facilitator. It is just something to make things happen. But perhaps when people look at the powerful possibilities that technologies like Quad can offer, it can inspire them to drive the sort of changes needed to enable organisations to work more collaboratively and, hopefully, make things better for everyone.

Social Network Analysis: An Introduction to Measuring How We are Connected

In the article ”Blaine Cook Introduces Us To Webfinger” Blaine suggested that, “Facebook is like a wedding from hell. Because it’s everybody you know and everybody you’ve ever met is just kind of hanging out. And if you were ever in a physical social space that would be like Facebook, it would be the most horrific experience you’ve ever had.” Despite having lists and groups the undifferentiated experience of using Facebook is a definite drawback for many users, myself included.

Most people’s lives are made up of involvements in many social groupings. Home, social, and work are probably the three main categories. The relationships within each of these spaces have their own associated considerations, responsibilities and obligations. While there may be a certain amount of overlap there is a distinct tendency to compartmentalize our activities in these different spaces. Having everybody you know lumped together on a social network like Facebook is not reflected in how we conduct our lives in the real world.

However much we make distinctions between the various social sets in our own lives it is still relevant and important to be able to measure how we are all socially connected to the world of people, groups and organisations that are around us and how in turn they are related to us.

In Stanley Milgram’s Small World Experiment we are shown that, for Americans anyway, only six degrees of separation – six other human contacts – separate us from anyone else.

Trying to get a handle on those connections is where Social Network Analysis (SNA) comes in. Originally, a sociological theory it is now a field of practical study with its own tools and techniques to describe our relationships, ties and interdependencies. In addition to its own descriptive terms SNA relies on heavily on graph theory. This is particularly important because once we get beyond our very immediate personal networks it becomes harder and harder to describe our interrelationships in useful ways. Families can use images of family trees to show how siblings, aunts, cousins and so on are related to each other. Businesses use organizational charts to show the deployment of responsibilities. However, beyond these tight knit internal representations can get dense very quickly.

Adding to the processing load are other factors which have to be taken into consideration. Here are just three:

  • Strength of ties: Not all ties are equal. Some are strong and some weak but weak ties can also have significant influence. A comment from a passing stranger or an unfamiliar speaker at a conference for instance can have effects disproportionate to our familiarity with that person.
  • Lots of connections in your networks doesn’t necessarily reflect influence: Bernardo Huberman from HP Labs has already shown this in his work on Twitter, ”How To Influence On Twitter: Research Results From New Algorithm Give Guidance.” What matters is where you are along the line between being at the centre of formed groups and cliques and being available to link to the otherwise connected. Being the bridge between a fully networked group and those outside that group is where the power of influence lies.
  • Vulnerability: Some networks can have a lot of connections to a single point. If that person, group or organisation is no longer available for being connected to it can result in the possible fragmentation and dispersal of the entire network.

An immediate application of SNA is in epidemiology. Being able to model and predict how diseases like HIV/Aids spread is vital for public health planning. Social networking sites can be an absolute gold mine for being able to monitor, measure and quantify people’s relationships.

The information derived from the applications of SNA techniques allows the social network operators to provide a better service and make the experience of the site more meaningful. It also provides useful data that can be used for marketing products and other commercial activities.

SNA applies to either persons or groups and the points where relationships connect are called nodes. In this article, ”Social Network Analysis, a Brief Introduction”, it is pointed out by Valdis Krebs that while all the action may seem to be occurring with those at the centre of a network there are real possibilities for change that come from those at the periphery.

Being less likely to be involved in the comfort zone of homogenous communication in a group other than their own, they can, by their position towards the edge of a group, create the opportunity to bridge one social network with another. These bridging nodes, whether they are individuals, groups, companies and so on are where the potential for the rapid expansions of networks lies.

Social Networks Analysis shows us that our connections are always dynamic in nature and alter in complexion according to how close to the centre or periphery we are in relation to others in our networks.

As social networks influence our lives more and more it will become more and more vital to be able to accurately measure and observe as precisely as possible what is going in that environment.

Agile Modeling: Flexible and Responsive Project Planning

On a recent visit to a corporate facility in Galway I couldn’t help but notice a vast amount of post-its dispersed across the ceiling to floor whiteboards in certain meeting rooms. It was explained to me that the reason for all these notes being stuck up was because of their adoption of the Agile Modeling system for product development.

Instead of just having one huge playbook outlining the stages of product development from inception to completion each stage and step of the process is labeled with a post-it note and stuck to the wall.

One traditional approach to product development is to define the outcome and fill in the interim steps by either working backwards from the goal or writing out a predicted trajectory or critical path for the fulfilment of the project.

The disadvantage of the playbook approach is that many projects have quite a long development cycle. A year to two years is not unusual. What seemed like a solid, logical, workable plan at the outset can be rendered redundant and meaningless by all sorts of unpredictable factors.

Changes in technology and changes in the market are just two such factors that could give pause for a rethink.

In the Agile Modeling system once the steps, stages and associated notes are placed the wall they can be shuffled around to conform to the criteria of the project and the availability of resources over a given time period. For instance, instead of assigning a hundred people for six months, a team of three can be used to processes one step whereas a team of ten may be needed for the next step.

A number of advantages are:

  • The idea of ‘fail fast’ is introduced to the product development cycle. Unpredictable factors can mean that the project has to be abandoned or repurposed. Rapid adaptation to these factors can be done quickly and reduce costs in wasteful production effort.
  • Only the expertise that is needed is engaged at any given stage. This frees staff to work on other projects when their contributions are not immediately needed.
  • Working leaner means a great many costs be reduced. Workspaces can be tailored to the needs at hand.
  • Decisions can be taken quicker. When all the appropriate effort is focused on a given stage it is needless to wait for a review meeting further down the timeline.
  • New ideas can be assimilated very quickly and bad ideas rejected equally quickly as there is no playbook legacy effect. The idea is that plans made for six months down the line shouldn’t unduly affect decisions based on new information in the present.

This last point is particularly key. Without necessarily sacrificing the aims of a given project it is possible to very quickly adapt to new conditions and new thinking and incorporate them into the production development process.

There is a radical game-changing aspect as to the demands that are placed on the company or corporation that takes the Agile Modeling idea on board.

Not only do the engineers and product people have to be ready to make intelligent adaptations of their plans in relation to changing circumstances but everybody working inside the business system has to comply as well.

  • Marketing departments have to be flexible in what the idea of the product is about.
  • Accounting systems have to be responsive to changes in agreed procurement schedules.
  • Delivery and distributions systems, both mechanical and electronic, need to be aware of unexpected fluctuations in demand on the systems.
  • Management has to trust, since this is an impossible scenario to micromanage, that for a good part of the process that the right people find themselves in the right place dictated by the demands of the current stage of product development.

This means not only does the product itself have agility the company that surrounds it must be agile and flexible as well to cope with the ever changing flux of requirements to help a product succeed.

For Agile Modeling to really work it entails the movement away from the traditional idea of the centralization of the management of resources in most companies.

Company and corporate structures will find themselves adjusting to accommodate more flexible working practices and be able to have a more agile response to the market conditions they operate in.

Businesses will always need a hierarchical command and control structure but, with new technologies such as social media tools for communication and systems like agile modeling for planning, the smarter companies will find ways to make the internal changes to take advantage of these ideas.

Sensormind: Startups and the R&D Cycle

Siobhan King-Hughes began her career working for Blue Chip international organizations in programming and development at Microsoft. From there she went on to have senior technical management positions at Frame Technology (now part of Adobe Systems.) After that she was at Lotus Development (now part of IBM) and then Oracle. Latterly she was Head of International Products at AOL.

At present she is the owner and CEO of Sensormind, a company she started to provide the technology that enables independent living to be maintained safely without any kind of obtrusive monitoring.

How did you get started in this area?

“I am interested in the application of technology and in automation and I was really interested in taking technology into a space where it wasn’t being widely used or wasn’t being used fully.

“When I came up with the idea for providing technology for independent living there wasn’t really very much happening in that space. When I went out to have a look at alternative products there wasn’t anything out there.

“My husband’s parents were elderly and living in a rural area. We would visit them and come home and then we would worry about them. We would ring them and no one would answer the phone and we would start thinking, “Are they OK? Are they not OK? Should I ring again? Should I not ring? Am I disturbing them if I ring or are they just not near the phone?”

“It was that kind of worry that triggered us to say, “Is there no way we can see what is going on without actually being there?” Obviously, putting a camera on someone is not something you want to do.”

How did the product evolve?

“I thought it would be quite simple to implement. As I got into it I realized there were huge complexities in what we were trying to do. Because, really what I was trying to do was behavioural analysis on the different behaviour patterns that a person has in their home. What’s normal, what’s not normal and then create alerts on the basis of what’s abnormal. Sifting those patterns from noise is quite a complex task.

“We were working on that for at least a year. Every entrepreneur says it always takes twice as long as you would think and this project definitely did.

“A number of different things happened along the journey as I was working on the core Sensormind product. We built a whole platform and we were doing a behavioural pattern analysis when we got talking to some people in the care industry and found that private home care managers were really struggling with managing their staff.

“We saw an opportunity where we could provide a product that could help them manage their staff. So instead of developing one product we ended up developing three.”

  • Sensormind Care Manager: Enables private home care organizations to manage their staff. They are delivering thousands of hours of care each week and they need to be sure that the people they are sending to a particular job actually arrive and make the visit on time.
  • Sensormind Personal Alarm: A social alarm for alerting others if the wearer needs assistance.
  • Sensormind Independent Living: A monitoring system that alerts if unusual activity is detected. It is based on an algorithm derived from a considerable amount of behavioural analysis.

(Sensormind Care Manager is available now. The other two products will be available early next year.)

How does Sensormind distinguish between normal and abnormal behaviour?

“It’s been a really interesting journey for us. We learned not to make assumptions about how people behave. Or to assume that everyone is going to behave in the same way. Or, to assume that people are always going to do the expected.

“There are people who stay up very late and get up late and people who get up very early and go to bed early. People have different visitor patterns. People who visit the home, friends, neighbours, family, that all has to be taken into account. If it’s a warm day and some leaves the doors open to let some air in then that has to be taken into account as well.

“So, there’s been a massive amount of ordinary behavioural data that we didn’t start off thinking about but we needed to think about as we went along and it is all built into our algorithm.

“That’s the core intelligence of our system. The real innovation is in how our system deals with all the different patterns and the collection of different patterns that can happen at the same time.”

Clearly Sensormind has the opportunity to lead in the inter-connected health space. Where do you see things going from here?

“Before you get a product on to the market there is a lot of research and development that has to happen to make sure it meets a particular standard. Unlike a regular consumer type product you can’t put something like this out if it doesn’t work properly. It’s not OK to say, “It’s just got a few bugs.”

“A lot more quality assurance than that needs to happen. There has to be a longer development cycle because in terms of safety and trust it has to be so much more reliable than a fun application for your iPhone.

“That means there has to be a lot more effort and cost put into the R&D cycle then for some other products. This makes it difficult for small startups to get traction in this space. There is a lot of work to do to get to a particular standard of reliability. Therefore, it’s really important for Ireland to support small indigenous startups that have good ideas to and help them get to a level where they can create jobs and start to bring some attention to this country in a positive way on the innovation side.

“I think we now have a highly trained, highly educated workforce. We have very smart people with exposure and experience to ways of doing business internationally and we have world class standards in terms of technology and development. We need to create our own indigenous startup companies and support them to get to an international level. Rather than continuing to solely rely on international investment.”

Hackfwd: A New Approach to Tech Funding

Hackfwd is a very important new way of bringing early stage, pre-seed investment to tech startups in Europe. Instead of having to navigate complicated financial deals, find VCs with just the right ‘fit’ and get involved in deciphering opaque legal agreements it is possible to have an open, clear and structured understanding of funding arrangements.

For the projects they accept, Hackfwd offers enough money (roughly a year’s salary) for the developer to be able to focus on a project for a year. The amount of funding also depends on whether it is an individual or a team up to the size of three.

The startups get to keep 70% equity. Another 3% is apportioned to advisors and Hackfwd takes the remaining 27%. It is as clear as that.

For a lot of highly focused engineers who are working night on day on their projects many aspects of running a company may be quite unfamiliar. To help with this Hackfwd offers continuous business and marketing advice and there are quarterly passion meets momentum get togethers. These are geeks only events where ideas can be aired and shared.

There are other ways of the way in which Hackfwd does business that separates it from a conventional funding setup, Angel investor, Venture Capitalist or otherwise.

  • Standard agreement versus individual one.
  • Standard valuation versus this whole idea of, “how much I give up is according to how much you trust me.”
  • Standard amount of funding.
  • A promise to say yes or no to the entrepreneurs in 72 hours.
  • Progress is checked three months at meetings held in Majorca.
  • Helping, not with investment managers, but helping with experts in domains, marketing product, HR, finance.
  • As Lars Hinrich, Executive Geek on the board of Hackfwd says, “It is a very different approach to anything that has been out there before.”

    Yet another thing that is different at Hackfwd is in its use of social networks. You must be referred through their trusted network of referrers.

    “It is a trust circle of people that we like and trust and only they can make referrals. The best geeks, in a way, have to hack their way into Hackfwd.

    “That we are only targeting geeks is definitely something that is very uncommon. It is so much easier for an MBA from Insead or Kellog or wherever to get funding. If you look at European geeks and then imagine them pitching them to venture capitalists – no way.”

    The Talent Gap

    “The problem right now is that everything is close to free or is for free. Or it is in the cloud and therefore you don’t need infrastructure. The only thing you buy is talent. So, employing talent is one strategy. Making talent into entrepreneurs is another one.

    “I worked for the last ten years with geeks and I do speak their language. I know what it takes and mostly I saw this kind of brilliance in them as they were creating completely new things. They are the first ones to imagine new things that don’t exist right now. Most others can interpret things they have seen somewhere and use it in maybe a different way for their companies. However, the really cool new ideas are mostly spun out from engineers.”

    The Funding Gap

    “If you look at the talent gap; the geeks don’t know how to set up companies or how to run them or how to do marketing. However, in this new web age all these things are data driven. It is much more logical then it used to be.

    “Think of advertising in the two thousands or the nineties. You had to be super creative and make great artwork, etc. Right now everybody knows how to use Google and everybody knows how to buy traffic. It’s more about knowledge and execution than art. There is no mystery about marketing, it is data-driven.”

    Product Execution Gap

    “The most difficult gap is how to execute on product. I think we are kind of co-creators. We help to frame certain ideas. When we see great technology, with the experience of our group we say, “have you thought about this and this and this?” Suddenly the product changes a bit and we say, “this is really, really cool, let’s get it out.” We are active in the way that helps to shape ideas to the optimum.”

    From an engineer’s or coder’s perspective a lot of what passes for traditional business practice, particularly marketing, can seem like magical thinking. For people who are used to controlling every part of their working environment bringing an idea market can seem akin to the journey home of Odysseus. Hidden and unpredictable perils seem to lie everywhere.

    By using modern digital-age ideas of openness and transparency coupled with the ability to access and analyse data, clearly defined structures and methods can be used by all of us to handle the process of bringing an idea to market and a lot of the seeming mystery of business evaporates.

    In its short time in existence Hackfwd has brought seven companies through its system and will have two more ready to progress in business by the end of this year. What Hackfwd has done is bring greater clarity, structure and methodology to what is already a very challenging task – bringing a product to market.

    The present funding system, as it stands in all its capriciousness and uncertainty, has the tendency to put off and discourage the possessors of the great ideas that can change and improve the world from coming forward to show and share what they have. With emerging new business methodologies and philosophies such as this we now have a greater chance to access the ideas of genius that we may normally have never heard about.

Weedle: Creating a Fabric of Credibility

Iain MacDonald started Weedle with the desire to provide a fundamentally better way of connecting people who have skills to people who need them within a trusted environment. Weedle employs 18 people at present, most of whom are mathematically and software orientated, and has users in over 160 countries. Not bad for a company that is only about a year old.

The origins of Weedle began when Iain needed to solve an arboreal problem at his home. He explains further, “I needed to find somebody who could help me cut down some trees at the bottom of my garden. I spent a bit of time asking my friends and my family if they knew somebody but unfortunately they didn’t. Then I went to Google and I found people who said they were very good tree surgeons but they were strangers to me. I found it very hard to trust them in terms of their competence, their value money, their reliability or their trustworthiness.

“I was pretty sure that the right person was out there. That they were out there looking to connect with me and I’m looking for someone with a skill I need and I am trying to connect with them. But the reality is that it is currently very difficult for us to find each other.”

Iain designed Weedle so that people who are searching for someone with a skill can go beyond just depending on how the suppliers have presented themselves, either via advertising or simply having membership of a professional or trade body. Using social networks as a means of verification there is now a way to assess other factors such as reliability and suitability in terms of being able to work with them.

“When you are looking for a lawyer or someone like that, often when a friend recommends them to you and you end up going to the lawyer they can turn out to be not the sort of person you are looking for. We can circumvent that waste of time by being able to see all the details of the person who has the skill before you contact them.

“What we have is a fabric of credibility. Say, I go to Weedle and I make my skill page. In order to be found when someone searches for me there are a couple of things we take into account in the context of our search algorithm. So, the first one is the content of my skill page and does it match for what someone would be searching for. The next element we take into account is who this person is actually connected to. We may have someone who has created a skill page and is connected to fifty people but they may be less credible then someone who has connected a skills page that maybe only connected to five people.”

How does Weedle compare to Facebook and Linkedin?

“Facebook is very good for communicating with your friends and Linkedin is very good for managing your white-collar network of contacts. But it is not so good if you are looking for a plumber or a carpenter.

“Even if you were looking for a corporate lawyer to float your company on the Nasdaq you’ll get a resume or a some type of CV. What people are really looking for is what projects has he or she been involved in, what role did he play, how long did it take him to do it and to see examples of the expertise that he has.

“It’s not just about say, a yoga teacher who simply states they have worked in ABC Yoga for the last five years. On Weedle you will see; this is where they trained, this is where they worked and here is a video of her giving a yoga class. Here are photographs of the yoga studio, here is a list of ten people that are in your network that went to their class.”

How much of a role does Semantic Web technology have in your system?

“It’s really very significant: A lot of sites using search have gone down the hierarchical directory structure route. A person would have to pick from a drop-down box and choose ‘telecom industry’ and then ‘mobile telephony’ and then ‘mobile network.’ It’s very hierachical and pigeon-holes people into specific positions.

“The particular benefit of using a semantic ontology is that we have no hierarchy to the classification of our user skills. If you go on to the site declaring that you are a carpenter then all you need to do is say “I am a carpenter.” We know that we need to present that search result in a population of search results generated when others search for terms like carpenter, woodworker or joiner.

“We can apportion levels of relevance to the skill pages we have versus search strings. Machine learning combined with Semantic Web technology creates a much better user experience.”

The underlying idea that determines credibility and trustworthiness both offline and online is social proof. Any claim you may make about yourself personally or professionally is validated, or not, against how you are perceived by your social network. Professional bodies may declare you competent and award you some sort of certification and send you out the door to ply your trade but it is how you handle your day to day dealings that really count for most people.

Iain has come up with a system that allows you to access the layers of social trust that surrounds us all and enables access to the sort of vital information on someone that would only normally become available over time and after, possibly, a number of encounters.

Hackquarium: Using Sugru to Create, Repair and Enhance the World Around Us

Yesterday, 091 Labs hosted a Hackquarium at their hackerspace in Galway. As discussed in a previous article, ”Sugru:A Wonder Stuff for Hacking Things Better,” Sugru is a malleable and mouldable silicone material that can be used for creating, repairing and enhancing all sorts of objects.

Jane Ni Dhulchaointigh, the inventor of Sugru (from the Irish word ag súgradh which means playing,) sent over a box of sachets containing the material to 091 Labs so that people could come along, learn about it and create with it.

The video accompanying this article shows highlights from the workshop. Holders were made for drawing tablets, earhooks were amended to make ear buds more comfortable and a crack in a mobile phone was repaired. Artwork was also created. A keyholder was sculpted as well as flowers and a snowman.

There was clearly a learning curve in being able to handle the material but that did not deter the participants. Despite, as a group, not being well-practiced sculptors and modelers most became very engrossed in the creative possibilities of using such a wonder material.