Year in Review: Our Top Five Most Popular Articles

It is not our usual way at Technology Voice to predict winners and losers in the uses and exploitation of technology and innovation. We see our task as being to find out what is new, relevant and interesting and tell others about it. About 40% of ‘these others’ are readers who come from the business world matched by a roughly equal amount that come from the world of academia, particularly in the areas of reserach. Many of our readers are from Ireland but a significant amount also come from overseas.

However, from our position as observers on the sidelines we can’t help but notice trends and patterns in both the marketplace and research laboratories. These trends are reflected almost isomorphically in the relative popularity of our articles.

As is customary at the end of the year we shall round up with a list of our top five most popular articles. It can be seen that their relevance to our readers acts as commentary and reflection on activities in the tech world in the last year.

It is clear from this selection that networking technologies of all sorts are of predominant interest.

The most useful metric for determining relevance that we have at our disposal is the popularity of a given article or blog measured in direct hits on the relevant article’s page. But we should offer caution here that we know, but cannot quantify to any degree of accuracy, that our articles circulate out across the digital landscape in ways that cannot be easily counted or assessed. So, the following list is based on a first order of popularity that we were able to quantify ourselves.

(Finding a way to accurately track the dissemination of URLs would bring the inventor untold wealth from the world at large and eternal gratitude from me.)



Tapmap: Navigating Offline Store Inventory With Online Technology This is the business article that drew the most interest this year. So, congratulations to Philip McNamara.

TapMap matches a request for a product through a mobile device with the products availability from a given supplier. This saves the customer from having to traipse around from place to place or even site to site.

TapMap also helps smaller retailers fight agains the default shopping mode that a lot us have which is the tendency to just go to a larger merchandiser on the assumption that ‘they will just have it.’



Starfish: A User-Controlled Network

With the massive coverage of Wikileaks and the activities of Anonymous this was an article that seemed to touch the current zeitgeist. The opportunity to move to a decentralized method of distributing information using currently available technologies offers us an opportunity to slip the shackles of Big Brother and the Telcos.

Of course, our communications technology, both hardware and software, comes from somewhere and that somewhere has to remunerated in some way but the flatter more egalitarian distribution system put forward here has a lot to offer in terms of efficiency and robustness.

It seems almost inevitable that this sort of networking will be implemented in some fashion.



Data Mining: Using Predictive Analysis And Social Network Analysis

Although Herculean, the movement and storage of petaflops of data across the planet and occasionally beyond has been managed with relatively little obtrusiveness to our daily lives. The internet could double in size over the very short term and those of us who weren’t equipment manufacturers would barely notice.

But the value of data lies in its relevance and usefulness to a given purpose. It has to have meaning to someone or something. Discerning the meaning of data and its significance to other bits of data is the work of Eric Robson who leads the Data Mining and Social Networks Analysis Group at the TSSG which is based at the Waterford Institute of Technology in Ireland.

Without doubt the TSSG is one of Ireland’s gems and with its focus on the commercialization of research we will be hearing much more from and about them over the coming years.

Data mining is relevant in every area of life where it is important to match seeming disparately bits of information not only to tell us what is going on but provide us with predictive ability as to what may happen over some future period of time. Applications range across the whole supply management and distribution of services and to areas such as law enforcement.



Bio-Inspired: Electronic Chips Emulate Workings Of Neuron

Our second most popular story of 2011 was from, in all places, just across the NUI Galway campus from our office.

Dr. Fearghal Morgan, Dr. Jim Harkin and Dr. Liam McDaid have used the natural architecture of the brain to create an electronic system that emulates some of the workings of a neuron.

I am particularly pleased about this one as I have had a long-standing interest in the work of Jeff Hawkins, formerly of Palm and Handspring, and his development of software architecture and processes that parallel the working of the brain at Numenta.

While ‘brain as a computer’ is a limited metaphor there is no question that there are processes in the various parts of the cortex that lend themselves very well to emulation on a micro-processor.

Our brains are the most complex data handlers that we know of but the ability to utilise technology that has been worked on for hundreds of millions of years offers us a wonderful opportunity to find new, better and more efficient ways of doing things.



Crowdgather

By far our most popular post ever and is indicative of the difference between the hyped web and the ‘real web.’

Facebook deserves to be written about both as a cultural phenomena and as a constantly evolving technology that through trial and error – whatever happend to Deals and email? But it also provides us with a great opportunity to discover how users participate and communicate with each other by digital means. (Let’s leave the walled garden argument to one side for the moment. With nearly 800 million users it is moot now as to whether it is a barrier in the cultural sense rather than the technical sense.)

However, the web is expanding faster than Facebook is. As a thought experiment if you were to somehow be able to stand at the edge of the expanding web, due to the different speeds of growth, if you were to look at the space that Facebook occupies it would seem to be getting smaller in a relative way.

Stumbleupon has amazing growth and activity figures which parallel Facebook’s but have not incurred the massive press coverage that Facebook has. Most people, even those not on the web, could tell you that Mark Zuckerberg is the main man at Facebook. Try a pop-quiz with friends and relatives over the holidays and see how many could name his counterpart at Stumbleupon.

But this focus on Facebook is distorted and is not an accurate reflection of what is really happening in the field of online communications.

Bigger than these two in terms of activity and sharing is the world of online forums. Our interview with Sanjay Sabnani illustrates some key points and here are a number of quotes from the article:

“What matters on a forum is the worth of your intellect, the merit of your thoughts and your ability to communicate them.”

“Forums are designed for a multiplicity of people to communicate with a multiplicity of people and they are done in an organized fashion with a taxonomy that makes sense.”

“What forums allow you to do is the sum total of everything you can do on the internet.”

We would like to take this opportunity to thank our regular contributors; Conor Harrington, Lisa Jackson, Ina O’ Murchu and John Conroy for the help they have given us this year.

We would also like to thank Tom McEnery, Rich Moran and Aoife Connelly for their valuable contributions which we are very grateful to have received.

TapMap: Navigating Offline Store Inventory with Online Technology

The first online shopping site, Intershop, was established in 1994, followed closely by Amazon and eBay. Since then, online shopping has expanded into the multi-billion dollar ecommerce industry that exists today.

Despite the growth of online shopping, consumers still research products online and then purchase that same product in a physical store. A US consumer survey commissioned by the Art Technology Group (ATG), published in March 2010, found that “30% of consumers today actually use three or more channels for a single transaction.”

This process, known as cross-channel shopping, has been linked with many factors. These include the need for a tactile experience that drives many consumers into their local stores ahead of online retailers. However, finding the exact product you have researched online in an offline store can be difficult. Until you visit the store you may not know if the product is in stock, or if it is at a reasonable price.

Philip McNamara noticed the need for greater transparency in relation to offline store inventory when he was searching for a gift over two years ago. “I remember I was in San Francisco and I was looking for a present for my friend. San Francisco is this really high tech amazing city. I was looking for a specific bike part and I remember I went to five shops asking for this. The first shop didn’t know if he had it, the next shop didn’t have it, next shop didn’t have it and it was a real pain.”

This experience prompted Philip to establish TapMap, a platform for retailers to publish their inventory data on mobile devices. A consumer can then search or scan the barcode on a desired product to check the availability of it in their local stores and compare it to online products.

Philip says “a lot of the retailers right now are competing actively against the big guys whether they like it or not. A lot of consumers are researching online, they know exactly what they want to buy and retailers are loosing out. They’re not being seen and they can’t be found. We want to change that.”

TapMap works with large retailers like O’Brien’s Wines, Unicarepharmacy and Evergreen Health Foods. It is also currently in discussions with retailers from the consumer electronics, health and beauty and toys and games sectors in Ireland, the UK and the US.

TapMap plugs into the retailer’s point-of-sale system and takes a feed of their data. This updates automatically in real-time or for example, every 2 hours or 24 hours. When a customer then searches for or scans a product, TapMap accesses the retailer’s data to inform the customer if the product is in stock, how much it costs and to provide a comparison with online retailers.

Many offline retailers are currently questioning whether they need to develop their own smartphone app (software application) to appeal to their customers. Philip believes that this is unnecessary.

“What the app will do is cost you €100,000 at least. There are about 350,000 apps in the app store and about 100,000 apps in the android store. No one will download it, and if they do download it, what value will they get from that? It’ll tell them maybe: Here’s my local store. I know that already. Here’s what’s in stock. Fine. But can I compare prices? No. Is it giving the consumer real value? No, so they’ll just delete it.”

Instead, Philip has this message for retailers: “What Google are saying is in the next two to three years there’ll be more queries going from mobile devices than there will be from fixed devices. Mobile is going through the roof. Whether you like it or not, your customers are researching your products and they’re finding them online really easily but they don’t know if they’re in your stores.

We know that, even despite the growth of e-commerce in the last ten years, the majority of all shopping is done in local stores. So people are researching online and buying in local shops. So if you don’t allow people to see that it’s in stock in your local store your customers will go somewhere else. They’ll go to Tesco because they know it’s in stock or else they’ll go to Amazon or eBay. So you’re going to lose out.”

With direct access to retailer’s inventory data, TapMap is conscious of maintaining high levels of data protection. Philip says, “When someone requests a price, it’s one person with oneprice and that’s what we give back. We don’t mine all the retailer’s prices and we don’t show their prices to anybody else. That’s their private data.”

The data captured, however, can be used to provide an insight into the retailer’s brand and the consumer interaction with it. Philip explains, “We can look at a retailers live data. We can see when there’s a big spike in demand and we can tell the retailer – of what people are scanning across the mobile web – what the top products are. When anybody scans the barcode of a product like in a shop, a pub or at home, we capture the latitude and longitude of that scan. That’s a lot of rich valuable data that we can use to give marketing companies or brands more insight into their own brands. But we don’t know that this comes from this exact store or this particular person. It’s all anonymised data.”

The ATG commissioned consumer survey also found that only 9% of people questioned never purchase products in a physical store. This figure highlights the continuing importance of brick and mortar stores to consumers. With the emergence of new technologies like TapMap, the offline store now has an opportunity to compete more directly with its online counterparts to maintain this importance in the online age.