Big Data workshop at the First European Celebration of Women in Computing

ECWCThis last Tuesday, I lead the ‘Discover Big Data’ workshop at the First European Celebration of Women in Computing.  There were many parallel sessions that morning and I received some questions about my presentation from the participants that couldn’t divide themselves to attend this workshop 😉

Welcome to the Big Data workshop, we need women in Big Data!

This workshop is called ‘Discover Big Data’ because Big Data is a hyped word. It is being used for anything where data is involved, but it still remains confusing as what it means.

  • You are also in Big Data  if you are dealing with data that has to be processed at great velocity, as is the case for GPS or for mobile phones.
  • You are in Big Data if you cross information that come on a variety of formats, like your customer’s transactions and your customer’s emails, or if you go to the social networks, like Facebook or  Twitter.  You can discover what are the topics being discussed, what is being said about your company or  who is talking about your product.
  • You are in Big Data  if you’re exploiting one of the many big available datasets like weather information, official administration records like property records or  financial information, economic indicators…

What can be done with Big Data?

It is mainly used for customer intimacy, discovering your customer profiles and target them on a one to one base. Finding their preferences and the hidden patterns to predict customer churn.

It can be used for optimisation, finding patterns of systematic problems hidden in your historical data. It can help for organising your maintenance, or to improve the supply-chain, finding better logistic solutions, optimise processes.

It is also used for innovation: It can help you create your new product. Looking at your competitors and finding the white-spaces or uncovering market trends.

And more generally, with all the available data you can create models forecasting future events and behaviors. Through what-if analysis to predict the outcomes of potential changes, you can direct your business strategy. It helps anticipating previously unforeseen opportunities, as well as avoiding costly situations, finding new revenue opportunities or identifying more effective business models.

As you see, there are great business opportunities!

How can we do all that?

There are many techniques like statistical analysis, data mining, text analysis, sentiment analysis, graph analysis, machine learning, predictive analysis, neural networks, conceptual clustering…

You may have heard already some of those words that sound promising but that also sound very complicated. And even so, the Big Data field is growing exponentially as men are running for it.  There are only 10% of women, don’t you want to be part of it? Companies that took this wave are thriving, well ahead of classical business. They are proposing you the right product at the right time, with the features you are looking for, for the price you are willing to pay. They are  increasing their profits while shaping our future with the products and business strategies they are creating.

I hear you saying: This is great but I don’t know a thing about this and it sounds so complicated. I’m here to tell you that not all of it is that difficult.

YOU could be in Big Data.

If you are in computing you have a leg up. And if you like mathematics you’ll enjoy being a data scientist. But you could be in Big Data even if you are not a techy person.  If you are in HR, in marketing, if you are a manager or a decision-maker with the right mindset open to data, you can exploit the Big Data wave.

Even if you see the potential, women tend to think ‘it’s not for me, I don’t have the competencies’.

Let me use some feminine stereotypes to illustrate we have the basic skills:

  • We have a tradition of getting together and talking too much.  And we have a tendency to be matchmakers.  We can put those skills of information gathering and making connections to good use finding relationships between data.
  • Who recognises herself in this? We are control freaks and plan everything, even the time of our loved ones.  Don’t you have a TODO list for your partner on Saturdays?  I do: Love, since you are driving Alex to the scouts, could you please pass by and drop the trousers at the dry cleaner?  What if you knew what your GPS knows already, that a road is blocked?  You could have asked him to bring some bread back as he’s going to pass near the bakery.  Don’t you feel satisfaction when doing things efficiently, optimising the Saturday time? So imagine tapping into all the available information and using it to improve the processes, it’s a rewarding job.
  • And if you have artistic skills, visualisation is your field. This is a new branch of data science, they are creating new techniques very interesting to show more than 3 dimensions of data, so you can see easily relationships graphically.
  • Generally speaking, I think we women have a natural talent to be data analysts: the ‘What if’ comes natural to us, we always investigate all possibilities before deciding for one, isn’t it?

Summarising, we saw there is business in here, and that we have the basic skills to be in the Data business.

Moreover, it is important that more women move into this field, not only because of the many business opportunities, but also because there are ethical issues involved in Big Data. We can mention data privacy and price gauging as some of these issues, but there are other business models that can be controversial.

The rules of what can be done with the data and what is off-limits, are being defined right now.  Let’s not miss the opportunity to give our view on this.

As an example, there is a great initiative from the Data2X program of the UN, who’s doing a research on women’s freedom of movements through satellite images and their phone geolocation.  Are they limited in their movements in some countries, do they have access to education, to health care? Great initiative, but what about the same at a private level: is following the movement of your partner with her/his phone geolocation ethical? What about tracking the movement of your children, as it’s done already in some countries?

It’s important to have our saying in the ethical uses of all those lakes of data and be represented in the decisions that will define our future society. We, women, have a natural tendency of looking after our loved ones, taking their needs in consideration. That’s what Big Data is needing, people that set the rules for using the incredible amounts of data, taking into account the different perspectives and with a long term view in mind. It’s the moment to use our feminine voice to shape a better society for all of us, participating also in the creation of the new business models.

In this workshop you will hear success stories to show you the opportunities to be included in this field. I hope you’ll join the Big Data movement.

Free Search Engines, says the EU!

The European Parliament is asking to “unbundling search engines from other commercial services”, issuing a message as in the ‘Free Willy’ movie, or any other cause you may be for 🙂

Free_willyThe Economist has done its first page article around it: ‘Should governments break up digital monopolies?’, Nov. 29th. 2014.  Is this issue so important?  Yes, I believe so.  The Economist’ writer dismiss this issue arguing that lately any dominant company has not kept its position for too long.  He mentions on this particular issue that technology is shifting again, and browsing is not as relevant as it was, as everybody is going mobile and using more apps than browsing than before. He also says the main interest of the EU for him is more to protect the European companies than for the benefit of the consumer, because the consumer is offered a better service with the attachment of additional functionnalities to the result of searches.

Giving people flight details, dictionary definitions or a map right away saves them time. And while advertisers often pay hefty rates for clicks, users get Google’s service for nothing—rather as plumbers and florists fork out to be listed in Yellow Pages which are given to readers gratis, and nightclubs charge men steep entry prices but let women in free.

Even though as consumers we may be happy having those additional features, I don’t fully agree:  I still believe it is very important to ensure a correct result to a search or as much as it can be, at least not too obviously biased.  And for sure I don’t want to leave in the hands of a few (managers of Google for instance) to decide what is shown to the majority of us as a result of a search, how to prone between the choices, how to direct our attention to only their friend’s interests (on products or on views).

On the other hand, we may have a bigger impact on educating the user: what is he receiving from a search result may be biased because of the business model or the intertwined interests of the search engine providing the answers. Because technology is moving very fast, for when a resolution of this type is issued, the manipulative aspect of marketing may have moved to another place.

For the other aspect, the collection of all the user’s data and its privacy, the issue is becoming urgent, the whole world would benefit from a just and feasable way to deal with it:

The good reason for worrying about the internet giants is privacy. It is right to limit the ability of Google and Facebook to use personal data: their services should, for instance, come with default settings guarding privacy, so companies gathering personal information have to ask consumers to opt in. Europe’s politicians have shown more interest in this than American ones.

Small talk on Big Data

Last week I presented this topic to professional women at PWI here in Brussels. It’s called ‘small talk’ because it is not a technical presentation but one for a broader audience, to create awareness on this Big Data trend.   The main concept I wanted them to take away is the change in the business arena and in our society due to Big Data. If you are interested on this subject, just drop a line and let me know!

Prices of discs and storage devices have dropped a lot, so now basically any digital data is being stored.  Cost is so low, that it is worth to save it ‘just in case, and we’ll see in the future what we can do with this data’.  Technology has made also  huge advances with massive parallel processing, and we can manage to jungle through thousands of servers to analyse a bunch of diverse data and extract information from it in a usable time-frame.

This allows business strategists to make smarter decisions based on facts, better than how it was done before, based on experience or intuition.  So the message for all decision-makers is: go and check your data, you’ll find there valuable information to decide any business matter.  Also, be aware that your competition is going into it too, it can out-smart you!

At the society level, there are many ethical issues to deal with, like privacy or equality and fairness.  What to you think, is it fair to have a subsidy that is ‘personalised’, that may give more to someone than to others because of a particular factor, or allow access to a health treatment to someone and not to another based on his life expectancy for example?  What about basing the decision on his ‘ROI’  like the capability of paying back for the given  treatment?  Or is it more fair to have instead equality on subsidies, same amount for everyone? Even for the ones that could pay it by themselves? Either we discuss them before-hand, or we will be at the mercy of any politician or entrepreneur taking a step deeper in an unethical direction.

And as a last twist, I would like to point out that the basic value of knowledge is challenged.  We are already experiencing a change of values, knowledge is less and less valued as an asset anymore, but value remains in knowing how to get to the knowledge,where to find it and what to extract from data.

 

Railways Powered by Inspire

I was at the conference Powered by Inspire here in Brussels.  It was all about geo-spatial European Standardization.

Erika Nissi, from the International Union of Railways, spoke about their particular situation regarding this European Directive.  They want to move on that direction, and they will comply eventually, but railways have a lot of other Directives and Regulations to which they must comply too, they will be focusing primarily on their business needs.

In particular, they have to create by the end of 2015 a full European dataset with the railway infrastructure information from each country, and geo-spatial location is only part of it.  They face problems similar to the other economic sectors of quality of data, granularity (for example the junction information foreseen in Inspire is not detailed enough for their operational needs) and on top of that, the lack of means because of the economic crisis.

In the future they will contribute with a unified technical infrastructure dataset, but also consume many of other available cross-border information, like land leveling, city layouts or vegetation information when the train crosses a forest.  Knowing urbanization plans would help them plan new lines; traffic density will help adjusting to the needed train capacities; weather forecasts will improve the estimated time schedule,  improving customer satisfaction.  They could also evaluate the economic impact of new TGV lines…

I’ll just stop here, if you can imagine more possibilities, please leave them in a comment 🙂