Big Data Keeps Getting Bigger

The Wall Street Journal: “A recent survey by consultants NewVantage Partners has found that the number of U.S. firms using big data in the past three years has jumped 58 percentage points to 63% penetration—while 70% of firms now say that big data is of critical importance to their firms, an astounding jump from 21% in 2012. That’s one of the fastest tech-adoption rates ever. Meanwhile, the title of chief data officer—the C-Suite manager of big data—a title that until recently didn’t even exist, is now found in 54% of companies surveyed.

“The commercial impact of this revolution can be found everywhere from products and services that can predict the unique needs of individual customers, to improved credit precision, to stores that adapt (through special discounts and deals that pop up on your smartphone) to each customer who walks through the door.

“To date, much of this activity has remained hidden from sight. But soon it will burst forth much more publicly—and the experiences of daily life will be profoundly transformed into a new set of personalized, predictive and empowered experiences we can barely imagine today.”

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littleBits: Designing A Gender-Neutral Toy

C-Suite Strategies, a special supplement in The Wall Street Journal, featured an interview with Ayah Bdeir, founder of littleBits Electronics, makers of gender-neutral kits for building electronic toys — “snap-together electronic circuits, motors, lights and motors.”

“We want to help kids and adults understand the world around them further and reinvent it,” Ms. Bdeir, herself an engineer, says. In response to a question about how she creates gender-neutrality, especially in a category that is traditionally male-oriented, she responds:

“We are deliberately gender-neutral in the design of our product, packaging and communications, the colors we pick, the inventors we feature, the inventions we select [for publicity]. We promote creativity in art, in music, in design, not gendered hobbies. We market littleBits as a tool for invention, learning and play, as opposed to marketing it as a toy, which avoids placing it in either the pink or blue aisle.

The traditional association with robotics and vehicles is that they’re boys’ tools. So, we have bright colors that look like candy. There’s an extra effort to make the circuits look beautiful. And it turns out boys are not turned off. Anecdotally, our teachers tell us it’s close to 40% to 50% girls, which is unheard of in electronics.”

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Main & Vine: New Kroger Format Emphasizes ‘Community’

Seattle Times: A new, small-format Kroger store in Gig Harbor, WA, combines quality produce (like Whole Foods) and lower prices (like Trader Joe’s) but most of all is positioned as “not just as a grocery store but as a community hub, where local products are prominently displayed, community involvement is highlighted and people can hang out in the store’s two-level cafe area.”

“In the ‘brew and blend’ cafe area, beers including those from Gig Harbor’s 7 Seas Brewing are on tap, and coffee from Gig Harbor’s Cutters Point Coffee is served. Customers can eat sitting at tables and chairs or can people watch from lounge chairs on the upper level.”

“Local and regional wines and beers are arrayed prominently in the adult-beverage section, Gig Harbor’s Artondale Farm has its own stand for soaps and lotions, local artists painted the murals on the walls, and a product display features a small wooden boat built by Gig Harbor BoatShop … The name came from what the company wanted the brand to represent, with ‘Main’ evoking the Main Street of a community and ‘Vine’ conveying green and fresh.”

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Inclusive Design: Microsoft Thinks Outside the XBox

Fast Company: “Dubbed inclusive design, (Microsoft) begins with studying overlooked communities, ranging from dyslexics to the deaf. By learning about how they adapt to their world, the hope is that you can actually build better new products for everyone else.”

“What’s more, by finding more analogues between tribes of people outside the mainstream and situations that we’ve all found ourselves in, you can come up with all kinds of new products. The big idea is that in order to build machines that adapt to humans better, there needs to be a more robust process for watching how humans adapt to each other, and to their world … They are finding the expertise and ingenuity that arises naturally, when people are forced to live a life differently from most … the promise of this new design process isn’t in just a better Microsoft.”

August de los Reyes of Xbox: ”If we’re successful, we’re going to change the way products are designed across the industry. Period. That’s my vision.”

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Quote of the Day: Craig Spiezle

“Ad blocking is a symptom of a pervasive problem. If consumers enjoyed the web experience and felt there were adequate controls for privacy and the ad industry was making a sincere effort to fight abuse and malfeasance, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.” ~ Craig Spiezle, Online Trust Alliance, via The New York Times.

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Tesco, Apple & The Meaning of ‘Marketing’

Two weekend news stories paint “marketing” in a pejorative shade; one is kind of funny and the other is decidedly not so funny. The lighter story concerns Tesco, the UK supermarket chain, and its decision to stop making crescent-shaped croissants. This is how Harry Jones, Tesco’s croissant buyer, explained the decision in a written statement, cited in The New York Times:

“The majority of shoppers find it easier to spread jam, or their preferred filling, on a straighter shape with a single sweeping motion. With the crescent-shaped croissants, it’s more fiddly, and most people can take up to three attempts to achieve perfect coverage, which increases the potential for accidents involving sticky fingers and tables.” The story concludes by noting that Tesco’s move to twist-free croissants was roundly mocked on Twitter “as a marketing tactic.”

The other story is, of course, the one involving Apple and the Justice Department’s demand for “the technical tools to get inside the phone” to help investigate the mass killings in San Bernardino, California, also reported in The New York Times. In a court filing, prosecutors said Apple’s resistance “appears to be based on its concern for its business model and public brand marketing strategy.”

In Tesco’s defense, it appears the retailer is mainly interested in creating what it believes is a better croissant “experience” for its customers. Call that “marketing” if you want, but it falls squarely within the realm of solving a perceived customer problem. Bravo. The problem is that Tesco is forcing this solution on all of its customers, disenfranchising those who care less about the efficiency of consuming a croissant than the enjoyment of it. For many, this means pulling the damn thing apart bit by bit and making a real mess of it along the way.

As for Apple, it’s clearly a more complicated issue. Without taking sides on the controversy itself, this much is clear: The company should not be denigrated as a “marketer” for trying to keep its brand promise — privacy– to its customers. This isn’t about marketing to its customers; it’s about being true to them. The Times article also makes this key point:

“Apple has taken a strong stand on privacy … because the company’s business model encourages a bolder stance. Unlike other Silicon Valley tech giants, Apple’s business has a straightforward hardware model that hinges on selling physical devices like iPhones, iPads and Macs. Other tech companies, including Google, Facebook and Twitter, depend more on the online collection of large amounts of consumer data for their digital advertising-oriented businesses.”

Where others build their businesses on selling their customers’ privacy, Apple’s premise — and promise — is just the opposite. Its privacy policy states: “When we do ask to use your data, it’s to provide you with a better user experience.” You can believe that or not. You can side with Apple or the Justice Department (and again, no position is taken on that here). However, to disparage or dismiss Apple’s stance as just “marketing” demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding that the ultimate worth of any brand is grounded in the promises it makes and keeps. That’s not just “marketing.” It’s everything. With a little butter and jam on the side, please.

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Stories Can Teach Machines How To Behave

“Mark Riedl and Brent Harrison from the School of Interactive Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology have just unveiled Quixote, a prototype system that is able to learn social conventions from simple stories,” reports The Guardian.

“A simple version of a story could be about going to get prescription medicine from a chemist … An AI (artificial intelligence) given the task of picking up a prescription for a human could, variously, rob the chemist and run, or be polite and wait in line. Robbing would be the fastest way to accomplish its goal, but Quixote learns that it will be rewarded if it acts like the protagonist in the story.”

“Quixote has not learned the lesson of ‘do not steal,’ Riedl says, but ‘simply prefers to not steal after reading and emulating the stories it was provided … the stories are surrogate memories for an AI that cannot ‘grow up’ immersed in a society the way people are and must quickly immerse itself in a society by reading about [it].’”

“The system was named Quixote, said Riedl, after Cervantes’ would-be knight-errant, who ‘reads stories about chivalrous knights and decides to emulate the behaviour of those knights.'”

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The Design Science of Conversational Agents

“The challenge of creating a computer “personality” is now one that a growing number of software designers are grappling with,” reports The New York Times. “A new design science is emerging in the pursuit of building what are called “conversational agents,” software programs that understand natural language and speech and can respond to human voice commands. However, the creation of such systems, led by researchers in a field known as human-computer interaction design, is still as much an art as it is a science.”

“Most software designers acknowledge that they are still faced with crossing the ‘uncanny valley,’ in which voices that are almost human-sounding are actually disturbing or jarring … Beyond correct pronunciation, there is the even larger challenge of correctly placing human qualities like inflection and emotion into speech. Linguists call this ‘prosody,’ the ability to add correct stress, intonation or sentiment to spoken language.”

“The highest-quality techniques for natural-sounding speech begin with a human voice that is used to generate a database of parts and even subparts of speech spoken in many different ways. A human voice actor may spend from 10 hours to hundreds of hours, if not more, recording for each database.”

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Jolly Roger Telephone: A Cure for Telemarketers

The Washington Post: “A Los Angeles man with an unusual passion for phone systems created a new robotic answering service that wastes telemarketers’ time. Roger Anderson started the Jolly Roger Telephone, which lets users start a three-way call with the service so they can listen gleefully as the bot rambles on. It’s designed to provide entertainment and empowerment for everyone who has grown weary of the phone calls. Its first question of the telemarketers is often, ‘Is this a real person?'”

“Anderson experimented with different personalities for his robot before deciding that an odd man who just woke up from a nap worked best. For instance, the robot burned time by telling the telemarketer they sound like a former high school classmate, rambling on about needing coffee or asking them to start over again.”

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