Bits Of Knowledge

A Blog about Machine Learning, Data Privacy and what it takes to make sense of the digital words in the rise of the digital millennium.

MOOCs: the new learning style

Written By: Corina Ciechanow - Mar• 26•14

Last week I presented MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) at the Professional Women International association in Brussels, Belgium.

I had the pleasure of talking to the participants afterwards.  They told me they were so pleased to learn they had such an easy way of taking good quality courses that they were going to check that same night for their preferred subjects :-)

Happy to have contributed to spread the word about the availability of the MOOCs, putting all their encapsulated knowledge encapsulated at any user’s fingertips!

On the last slide, I just dropped words  with the main implications of this trend;  I encourage you to put a comment if any of the subjects I mention resonates with you:

A philosophical view on hyperconnectivity

Written By: Corina Ciechanow - Feb• 02•14

Last week I had the pleasure to hear Nicole Dewandre talk about Hyperconnectivity at the Rotary club of Waterloo.  Nicole works as advisor for societal issues for the Director General of the DG CONNECT at the European Commission.


Her presentation was about the impact hyperconnectivity has on our human condition from a philosophical point of view. I was very interested in hearing her view on the impacts of the new information technologies.

She first described the characteristics of our human psychology, I picked some nuggets like ‘On passe sa vie derrière son visage’, meaning that we have only our inside view point, we don’t know  how we look like from outside, to the others. This is why we need the other’s reflection to complete our identity.  Before the hyper-connectivity era, we could choose the limit of exposure of our inner-world, we could say or not where we had been, what we did, what we thought depending on the context :  is the person we are talking to a friend or a working colleague?

With all the electronic traces and information we leave behind, the online and offline distinction is blurring, that’s why they came up with the term ‘OnLife’ :-).  And with the existing Big Data techniques we are revealing so much more about ourselves, that the needs of opacity each person has  is being challenged.

The Onlife manifesto proposes to create a new digital literacy:  as language is not only being able to put words on a sentence,  but consists also of  a code of conduct: what can be said, in which context? (for example ‘secretos en reunión es mala educación’ which means it’s bad manners to whisper in public) , we have to create awareness in all digital users of a code of conduct, a ‘Netiquette’ of the digital world.  What can be posted and to which public? Posting pictures of a trash party on Facebook:  is it OK to publish it open to all public without the consent of each person in the picture?  Is it OK for your phone company supplier to publish or sell your whereabouts?

The manifesto points also out the problem of attention:  everybody wants to capture our attention, but as we can only focus on one thing at a time, our attention is a limited asset as time.

We believe that societies must protect, cherish and nurture humans’ attentional capabilities. This does not mean giving up searching for improvements: that shall always be useful. Rather, we assert that attentional capabilities are a finite, precious and rare asset. In the digital economy, attention is approached as a commodity to be exchanged on the market place, or to be channelled in work processes. But this instrumental approach to attention neglects the social and political dimensions of it, i.e., the fact that the ability and the right to focus our own attention is a critical and necessary condition for autonomy, responsibility, reflexivity, plurality, engaged presence, and a sense of meaning.

This ‘Onlife Manifesto’ seems an interesting initiative.  I’ll look more into it.

As New Services Track Habits, the E-Books Are Reading You

Written By: Corina Ciechanow - Dec• 28•13


In this article of The New York Times David Sreitfeld is discussing a new service ScribD is beginning to offer. Scribd is a subscription-based library, where you can read books through their interface.  They are now collecting information from their readers, like how long they stay on a page, the pace on specific chapters, do they reach the end of the book?.. The idea is to offer this insight to the authors, for them to improve their future deliveries.

Last week, Smashwords made a deal to put 225,000 books on Scribd, a digital library here that unveiled a reading subscription service in October. Many of Smashwords’ books are already on Oyster, a New York-based subscription start-up that also began in the fall.

The move to exploit reading data is one aspect of how consumer analytics is making its way into every corner of the culture. Amazon and Barnes & Noble already collect vast amounts of information from their e-readers but keep it proprietary. Now the start-ups — which also include Entitle, a North Carolina-based company — are hoping to profit by telling all.

“We’re going to be pretty open about sharing this data so people can use it to publish better books,” said Trip Adler, Scribd’s chief executive.

Quinn Loftis, a writer of young adult paranormal romances who lives in western Arkansas, interacts extensively with her fans on Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, Goodreads, YouTube, Flickr and her own website. These efforts at community, most of which did not exist a decade ago, have already given the 33-year-old a six-figure annual income. But having actual data about how her books are being read would take her market research to the ultimate level.

Here are some results they could extract from their data:

Scribd is just beginning to analyze the data from its subscribers. Some general insights: The longer a mystery novel is, the more likely readers are to jump to the end to see who done it. People are more likely to finish biographies than business titles, but a chapter of a yoga book is all they need. They speed through romances faster than religious titles, and erotica fastest of all.

They are “reading us” while we read :-) but let’s not be paranoid, we will be getting more attractive books… Let’s hope it doesn’t limit our choices in the future.

Global Brain and Crowdsourcing

Written By: Corina Ciechanow - Nov• 30•13


Are you familiar with the concept of the Global Brain ?

The concept is that we humans (and also computers) can be considered as neurons, connecting to each other through Internet, creating a super entity that acts as a global brain.

I discovered this idea, some years ago on the First Global Brain Workshop here in Belgium.  Since then this group has been following the technological and societal evolutions, analyzing this complex system, observing how it self-organizes and trying to identify the emergence of a ‘global brain’, maybe also a collective consciousness.

At the beginning of 2012, under the direction of Francis Heylighen,  The Global Brain Institute, has emerged ( :- ). Institution to which I am affiliated.  Every year the institute organizes a new season of seminars and workshops, and lately we have been listening to amazing presenters from different disciplines, most of them following the same line of reasoning even if from another angle.  That shows us that this subject is becoming mainstream in many fields.

Scientific, thinkers, philosophers are observing the appearance of new patterns of specific behaviors that arise from our interactions through Internet, and slowly they are beginning to see  the structures they form.  We are witnessing the emergence of another level of complexity, another ‘entity’.

In this entity, I think we could make the analogy of crowdsourcing sites as specific ‘organs’.  Crowdsourcing sites are sub-networks of people interconnected for a specific purpose, which can be providing a design, solving a complex problem, micro-funding a project and many other goals.


They participate in this new entity by providing a new type of connectivity between cells, an intermediate level of abstraction, like our organs.

Last Friday, Wolfgang Hofkirchner has presented his view of the Future to which we must evolve that he called the Global Sustainable Information Society (GSIS).  In his presentation he talked about the actual situation, and what he sees is still missing to get to that future society, the GSIS.
One of the problems he has identified of the actual social media networks is that there is no ‘bonding’, people can quickly be grouped, but can ‘opt-out’ at any time.  If we want to move altogether for the common-good and be able to solve the global challenges of our world, we must have a common view of our future, we must at least agree on some common objectives, like lowering the greenhouse effect to stop the temperature rise.  He is right, being able not to put your shoulder on some crucial global challenges is not a good thing.  We must move all towards those agreed common goals, and not be able to ‘opt-out’ of a challenge that will affect our sustainability, our survival.  The way to go is making it crystal clear the cost of opting-out: the end of humanity as we know it.

The ‘new deal on data’ for personal data protection.

Written By: Corina Ciechanow - Oct• 31•13

A few days ago I went to Italy, and look what caught my eyes in the airport coming back:


So I cannot but get into the ‘new deal on data’ for personal data protection of Alex Pentland that I mentioned on the previous post :-)

His idea is to treat personal data as an asset, and each of us would ‘own’ the data about ourselves.  He makes an analogy with a bank account, see how he explains it:

 …In 2007 I suggested an analogy with the English common law tenets of possession, use and disposal:

You have the right to possess data about you. Regardless of what entity collects the data, the data belongs to you, and you can access the data at any time. Data collectors thus play a role akin to a bank, managing the data on behalf of their “customers”.

You have the right to full control over the use of your data. The terms of use must be opt-in and clearly explained in plain language.  If you are not happy with the way a company uses your data, you can remove those data, just as you would close your account with a bank that is not providing satisfactory service.

You have the right to dispose of or distribute your data.  You have the option to have data about you destroyed or redeployed.

There are still some details to think about and see how we deal with them.   I find it fair his proposal of the ‘full control’ through an opt-in method.  But is it covering all the situations?  Is it feasable?  Can you contact everybody to be sure they allow you to use the data in a particular context?  What if we are facing a catastrophe scenario?

And what if before you withdraw data from a company, they had used it to do statistics, obtaining aggregated results based on your data?  Would it be reasonable to ask them to take it out from there?  Would it be even feasible or just too much costly or complex?  It may not be possible to draw it back entirely, but if your data has served to a calculation, well, the calculation may be wrong now if they go back again to their ‘raw’ data as yours is not there anymore, but you’re not ‘loosing privacy’ either.  So I think it we can live with this situation.

It gets complicated when we talk about private data not about a person, like a company’s data.  Or even more complicated when it’s difficult to identify a natural ‘owner’.

There are still issues we need to go through, even though I see many in the same line of Alex’s proposal that we should have the ownership over our personal data.


Alex Pentland’s article on Data-Driven Society

Written By: Corina Ciechanow - Sep• 30•13

I recently got the new issue from Scientific American (October 2013), and in the front page was announced the article ‘The Data-Driven Society’ by Alex Pentland.  I just had to read it :-)

He co-leads the World Economic Forum on Big Data and Personal Data initiatives.  He was talking about all the digital bread crumbs we leave behind on our daily life (like gps and gsm info, or electronic payments) and what can be done with it.

With his students of the MIT Human Dynamics Laboratory, he is discovering mathematical patterns through data analytics that can predict human behaviour. ‘Bread crumbs record our behaviors as it really happens’ he says, it is more accurate than the information from social media, where we choose what we want to disclose from ourselves.  Alex and his team are in particular interested in the patterns of idea flows.

Among the most surprising findings that my students and I have discovered is that patterns of idea flow (measured by purchasing behavior, physical mobility or communications) are directly related to productivity growth and creative output.

Analysing those flows, he uncovered 2 factors that have a positive pattern of healthy idea flow:

  • engagement: connecting to others, usually in the same team or organisation, and
  • exploration: going abroad to exchange ideas.

Both are needed for creativity and innovation to flourish.  To find those factors, he based his research on graphs of different types of interactions, like person-to-person, emails, sms..

We may not have the tools he used (like an electronic badges for tracking person-to-person interactions) but intuitively this is something we know, a good communication is essential for the success of a team, but talking to an external person may provide a new insight.  It’s always good to be proved right, isn’t it?

Check my next post, I’ll continue with his article, there are a lot of great concepts he is presenting as the ‘new deal on data’ for personal data protection.


Critical Thinking: the importance of questionning

Written By: Corina Ciechanow - Aug• 31•13


Critical thinking is the ability to gather and assess evidence and information, and use clear reasoning methods to reach justified conclusions. It  also implies to evaluate our thoughts, and learn to refine our thinking process.  It is a key skill in the information age, valuable in all disciplines, professions and domains.  Now that accessibility to information is not an issue, it becomes easier to apply a critical thinking process in order to reach the best solution to a problem or to take an informed decision.  Moreover, even if accessing information is not an issue, data overflow is, so the steps of evaluating informatio, for instance based on its credibility and relevance, are crucial.

Despite its advantages, the explicit teaching of critical thinking is not widespread.   The pace of change in our world is accelerating, things are becoming increasingly interdependents and complex. Learning to think critically is each time more a survival need if we want to be able to take informed decisions and steer the changes that will shape our future. We should rise awareness about it to make it popular and embrace it as a core social value.
Critical Thinking can be applied in any learning situation. At school, at work in front of any business decision, and also in the context of our democratic societies, in order to select the right political candidate.

I have to admit, after each election, I sometimes (usually) complain: ‘why people don’t think?’ (let’s read: why don’t they see the world as I do?). Obviously I know that  critically thinkers may vote different from me :- ) but even knowing that, I would be happy if I knew they did think of all the issues before voting. So I decided to prepare a seminar on critical thinking, and I will try to deliver it to as many people as I can : – ) This is my ‘holiday resolution’.

Massive Open Online Courses

Written By: Corina Ciechanow - Jul• 28•13

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) are very recent, but are quickly gaining popularity.  Coursera is one of the big platforms that offer those free courses, along with edX and Khanacademy just to mention a few.  Last year I took a fantastic course offered by Coursera  called ‘Model Thinking’ given  by Prof. Scott E. Page, who’s the Director of the Center for the Study of Complex Systems at the University of Michigan ( I posted already about it here : – ).

In March this year, I was glad to receive a mail from Scott Page, giving us some feedback from his experience doing this course, and sending us also a link to a presentation he did about the making of the course.

To give you an idea of the popularity of this course, there were 60.000 students enrolled on the first run of Model Thinking, beginning of 2012.  It grew to 100.000 for the fall run (by the way, if you are interested there will be a new run this fall 2013, and it may be the last one, says Prof. Page).

I would like to share with you Scott’s insights on his experience on making this online course contrasting it with the making of his online course ‘The hidden Factor’.  This last one was professionally done in a studio and he called ‘Model Thinking’: my garage band online course : – )

In fact, it was really recorded in one unused room of his house, because he said that the starting and stopping of the heating system in the rest of the house was picked up by his mike, so sensible it was even though it was just a $100 one.

To prepare the course, he thought of making it more modular.  So he cut it in small chunks, so that each video was independent, and treated a subject in no more than 15 minutes.  But as he said, that was the easiest part because what took him much more time was the recording of each lecture.  One big issue he had was that he was alone in this room to do the recordings, and trying to be smiling, engaging and enthusiastic is difficult without an audience.  Not only that, but he had unforeseen events from time to time, like his dog wandering around, and he laughed and found himself doing funny movement to chase him.

The editing took a lot of time, each video had to be reviewed, and in case of errors, it was difficult to fix it.  So at the end, some mistakes remained.   On the other hand in the professional approach, they took care of each error, but they had better tools and a battery of technicians to look into them and find different alternatives to correct them.  Sometimes he had to repeat one word they detected he had staggered with, and they told them even the intonation he had to use to repeat it; sometimes they just put a picture about the subject he was talking about, and he could rephrase one sentence.

In conclusion, here’s his comparison regarding costs to do the 2 videos:


So it is much more costly for a professional quality. Time-wise, it was surprisingly more or less equivalent:


The studio made video was undisputable better, being much easier to correct any mistakes:



But in the end, is the improvement in quality worth the cost?  Not really he says; the best quality is not needed, a good enough approach is better, even more if the cost prohibits its making.  So the best solution stands between those 2 options.

I found also very important his comment on how presenting this course changed his everyday work life.  He has now 1 hour per day reading his mail, answering to diverse requests on his subject of expertise.  He receives inquiries from technical advisors, deans, diverse influencial people that he cannot really discard.  On the one hand it’s not strictly his job, for what he is paid for, but on the other hand, can these requests be ignored? Is it responsible if you know your intervention can have such an impact as to do better policies, to improve many people’s life?

Snowden showed us the dangers of Big Data with PRISM, are we up to the challenge to steer its use?

Written By: Corina Ciechanow - Jun• 30•13

A television screen shows former U.S. spy agency contractor Edward Snowden during a news bulletin at a cafe at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport June 26, 2013. Credit: Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin


As we already discussed on my Big Data presentations,   being able to analyse the amount of data that traces all our actions and movements is a great opportunity to improve our lives, as much as to do business, but it can also be exploited for the worst.  Now Edward Snowden has put a clear case under the spotlights, will this make us move? Will this lead to change?

It’s time to consider what ethical codes and regulations can be issued, so that this excellent opportunity that technology is putting in our hands, that is sharing, measuring and extracting knowledge from all aspects of our lives, is not misused.

Nine Key Questions To Evaluate A New Technology

Written By: Corina Ciechanow - May• 31•13

Technical and scientific knowledge is growing at a fast speed.  This allows for a lot of experimentation and innovation but in order to do it, you need first to acquire very specific knowledge, to educate yourself in many technical disciplines.

This is not at everybody’s reach.  In particular, it is hardly at reach of non-technical decision-makers, as business managers or politicians. How can we expect politicians and the general public to be able to take an ethical or societal position, to legislate, on issues they don’t have the background knowledge nor the time (or will) to learn?

Nevertheless, some of these new inventions need legislation, and definitely you need to be aware of it as a business decision maker.  Here’s a practical approach to tackle this issue: use critical thinking, using contextual knowledge instead of technical one.

I’m extrapolating here from Miguel Aznar’s 9 questions to tackle the nanotechnology issue, in order to get a contextual comprehension of any technical issue:

  1. What is this new technique?
  2. Why do we use it?
  3. Where does it come from?
  4. How does it work? (just roughly, you don’t have to get too technical, exploit analogies )
  5. How is it evolving?
  6. How is this technology changing us (as an individual, as a society)?
  7. How could we change/adapt it?
  8. What are the pros and cons?
  9. How to evaluate/measure it?

This is a good set of questions to remember before taking action, don’t you agree?

photo by: x-ray delta one