Dec 172014
how are we using data in our business

Automation is the greatest change we’re going to see in business over the next decade as companies increasingly rely upon computers to make day to day decisions.

Giving control to algorithms however comes with a set of risks which managers and business owners have to prepare for.

Earlier this week the risks in relying on algorithms were shown when car service Uber’s management was slow to react to a situation where its formulas risked a PR disaster.

Uber’s misstep in Sydney shows the weaknesses in the automated business model as its algorithm detected people clamouring for rides out of the city and applied ‘surge pricing’.

Surge pricing is applied when Uber’s system sees high demand – typically around events like New Year’s Eve – although the company has previously been criticised for alleged profiteering during emergencies like Hurricane Sandy in New York.

In the light of previous criticism, it’s surprising that Uber stumbled in Sydney during the hostage crisis. Shortly after criticism of the surge pricing arose on the internet, the company’s Sydney social media manager sent out a standard defence of surge pricing.

That message was consistent with both Uber’s business model and how the algorithm that determines the company’s fares works; however it was a potential disaster for the business’ already battered reputation.

An hour later the company’s management had realised their mistake and announced that rides out of Sydney’s Central Business District would be free.

User’s mistake is a classic example of the dangers of relying solely on an algorithm to determine business decisions; while things will work fine during the normal course of business, there will always be edge cases that create perverse results.

While machines are efficient; they lack context, judgement and compassion which exposes those who rely solely upon them to unforeseen risks.

As the Internet of Things rolls out, systems will be deployed where responses will be based upon the rules of predetermined formulas.

Businesses with overly strict rules and no provision for management intervention in extreme circumstances will find themselves, like Uber, at the mercy of their machines. Staking everything on those machines could turn out to be the riskiest strategy of all.

Dec 162014

Earlier this year Decoding The New Economy interviewed SurveyMonkey’s  CEO Dave Goldberg on his vision for the business and how the company’s services are helping people understand the context of the data pouring into their organisations.

Yesterday SurveyMonkey announced it had raised 250 million dollars through an equity round that values the business at $1.3 billion, an amount only a little more than what the company has raised since being founded in 1999.

The additional funds are earmarked for privately held SurveyMonkey to acquire more companies and “provide meaningful liquidity to our employees and investors” with participants in the new funding round including CEO Goldberg and Google Ventures increasing their existing stakes.

In his interview with Decoding The New Economy last February, Goldberg described how he sees mobile technologies changing both SurveyMonkey and business in general along with the challenge for companies in understanding the data pouring into business.

It’s not hard to image many of the acquisitions SurveyMonkey makes with its latest fundraising will be in the mobile and analytics sectors.

Dec 022014

Hackers are infiltrating public companies to gain an edge on Wall Street warns a story on financial website Finextra.

This is not news, companies’ networks have been the target of insider traders since the early days of corporate computing. What is different today though are the nature of the risks as Chinese and even North Korean hackers are probing networks containing vast amounts of information to find weaknesses and confidential information.

For insider traders, it may be the internet of things turns out to be a boon. By hijacking delivery or supply data, traders may have an advantage over the market.

Things could get very nasty if those hackers subtly alter the data, say over reporting production yields, so a company gives the wrong income guidance based on faulty information.

Security is one of the big issues facing the internet of things sector and the consequences of poorly protected sensors or systems could be immense when governments, businesses and communities come to rely on a stream of data they can trust.

The bad guys are only just starting to explore the possibilities of the connected world.

Nov 202014

At this week’s Australian Gartner Symposium ethics was one of the key issues flagged for CIOs and IT workers; as technology becomes more pervasive and instrusive, managers are going to have to deal with a myriad of questions about what is the moral course of action.

So far the news isn’t good for the tech industry with many businesses failing to deal with the masses of data they are accumulating on users, suppliers and competitors.

A failure of transparency

One case in point is that of online ride service, Uber. One of Uber’s supposed strengths is its accountability and transparancy; the service can track passengers and drivers through their journey which should, in theory, make the trip safer for everybody.

In reality the tracking doesn’t do a great job of protecting riders and drivers, mainly because Uber has Silicon Valley’s Soviet attitude to customer service. That tracking also creates an ethical issue for the company’s management and one that isn’t being dealt with well.

Compounding Uber’s ethical problem is the attitude of its managers, when a Senior Vice President suggests smearing a journalist who writes critical stories then its clear the company has a problem and the question for users has to be ‘can we trust these people with our personal data?’

With Uber we may be seeing the first company where data management and misuse results in senior management, and possibly the founder, falling on their sword.

Journalists’ ethics

Another aspect of the latest Uber story is the question of journalistic ethics; indeed the apologists for Uber counter that because some journalists are corrupt that justifies underhand tactics from companies subject to critical articles.

That argument is deeply flawed with little merit and tells us more about the people making it than any journalist’s ethical compass, however there is a discussion to be had about the behaviour of many reporters.

As someone who regularly receives corporate largess — I attended the Gartner Symposium as a guest of BlackBerry and will be going to an Acer event tomorrow night — this is something I regularly grapple with; my answer (or rationalisation) is that I disclose that largess and let the reader make up their own mind.

However one thing is clear at these events; everything is on the record unless explicitly stated by the other party. This makes Michael Wolff’s criticism of Ben Smith’s original Uber story in Buzz Feed pretty hollow and gives us many pointers on Wolff’s own moral compass as he invites other writers to ‘privileged’ dinners where the default attitude is that everything is off the record.

Playing an insider game

Ultimately we’re seeing an insider game being played, where journalists like Wolff put their own egos above their job of telling their audience what is happening; Jay Rosen highlighted this problem with political coverage but in many respects it’s worse in tech, business and startup journalism.

It’s not surprising when a game is being played by insiders that they take offense at outsiders criticizing them.

Once the customers become outsiders though, the game is drawing to an end. That’s the fate Uber, and much of the tech industry, desperately want to avoid.

Uber in particular has many powerful enemies around the world and clumsy management mis-steps only play into the hands of those who see the company as a threat to their cosy cartels. It would be a shame if Uber’s disruption of the many dysfunctional taxi markets was derailed due to the company’s paranoia and arrogance.

Eventually ethics matter. It’s something that both the insular tech industry and those who write on it should remind themselves.

Nov 092014
Smart rubbish bins in Barcelona

Last year Alicia Asin of Spanish sensor vendor Libelium spoke to this site about her vision of the internet of things improving transparency in society and government.

A good example of this democratisation of data was at the New South Wales Pearcey Awards last week where the state’s winners of the Young ICT Explorers competition were profiled.

Coming in equal first were a group of students from Neutral Bay’s state primary school with their Bin I.T project that monitors garbage levels in rubbish bins.

The kids built their project on an Arduino microcontroller that connects to a Google spreadsheet which displays the status of the bin in the school’s classrooms. For $80 they’ve created a small version of what the City of Barcelona is spending millions of Euro on.

With the accessibility of cheap sensors and cloud computing its possible for students, community groups and activists to take the monitoring of their environment into their own hands; no longer do people have to rely on government agencies or private companies to release information when they can collect it themselves.

Probably the best example of activists taking action themselves is the Safecast project which was born out of community suspicion of official radiation data following the Fukushima.

We can expect to see more communities following the Safecast model as concerns about the effects of mining, industrial and fracking operations on neighbourhoods grow.

The Bin I.T project and the kids of Neutral Bay Public School could be showing us where communities will be taking data into their own hands in the near future.

Oct 212014

Beacon technologies are one of the hottest items in the Internet of Things with retailers, sports stadiums and hotels looking at how they  can use these devices to improve their operations and customer experiences.

At Dreamforce 2014 Proximity Insight’s Steve Orell spoke on the event’s wearable panel about how their service plugs into beacon technology and customer service.

Proximity Insight was born out of the 2013 Dreamforce Hackathon where Orell and his team were finalists. From that, the company set up operations in New York with a focus on customer relationship management in the retail industry.

Retail isn’t the only the field that Orell sees for Proximity Insight with the hotel and casino industries as being other targets.

“With the hotel, why check-in? Why not walk in and let your smartphone do it for you?” Orell asks.

“It’s all about making live so much more seamless and slick,” Orell adds. “There’s opportunities in every sector.”

For businesses looking at rolling out beacon technologies the key is to be adding value to enhance the customer experience, Orell believes.

“You have to be delivering something to the customer beyond tracking them, it’s about making the whole retail or hospitality experience better. It has to benefit the customer.”

With beacon technologies now becoming common and the supporting hardware being built into all smartphones, we can expect to see more applications coming onto the market. It’s worth considering how your business can use them to enhance the customer experience.

Paul travelled to Dreamforce 2014 as a guest of Salesforce

Oct 142014

Last week we looked at the way we organise information is changing in the face of exploding data volumes.

One of the consequences of the data explosion is that structured databases are beginning to struggle as information sources and business needs are becoming more diverse.

Yesterday, cloud Customer Relationship Management company Salesforce announced their Wave analytics product which the company says “with its schema-free architecture, data no longer has to be pre-sorted or organized in some narrowly defined manner before it can be analyzed.”

The end of the database era

Salesforce’s move is interesting for a company whose success has been based upon structured databases to run its CRM and other services.

What the company’s move could be interpreted that the age of the database is over; that organising data is a fool’s errand as it becomes harder to sort and categorise the information pouring into businesses.

This was the theme at the previous week’s Splunk conference in Las Vegas where the company’s CTO, Todd Papaioannou, told Decoding The New Economy how the world is moving away from structured databases.

“We’re going through a sea change in the analytics space,” Papaioannou said. “What characterised the last thirty years was what I call the ‘schema write’ era; big databases that have a schema where you have to load the data into that schema then transform before you can ask questions of it.”

Breaking the structure

The key with programs like Salesforce and other database driven products like SAP and Oracle is that both the data structures — the schema — and the questions are largely pre-configured. With the unstructured model it’s Google-like queries on the stored data that matters.

For companies like Salesforce this means a fundamental change to their underlying product and possibly their business models as well.

It may well be that Salesforce, a company that defined itself by the ‘No Software’ slogan is now being challenged by the No Database era.

Paul travelled to San Francisco and Las Vegas as a guest of Salesforce and Splunk respectively