Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Let's Build a Smarter Planet - Part IV

This is the fourth and final part of the transcript of a lecture I recently gave at the University of Birmingham in the UK.

In Part I of this set of four posts I tried to give you a flavour of what IBM is and what it is trying to do to make our planet smarter. In Part II I looked at my role in IBM and in Part III I looked at what kind of attributes IBM looks for in its graduate entrants. In this final part I take a look at what I see as some of the challenges we face in a world of open and ubiquitous data where potentially anyone can know anything about us and what implications that has on people who design systems that allow that to happen.

So let's begin with another apocryphal tale...

Target is the second largest (behind Walmart) discount retail store in America. Using advanced analytics software one of Target's data analysts identified 25 products that when purchased together indicate a women is likely to be pregnant. The value of this information was that Target could send coupons to the pregnant woman at an expensive and habit-forming period of her life.

In early 2012 a man walked into a Target store outside Minneapolis and demanded to see the manager. He was clutching coupons that had been sent to his daughter, and he was angry, according to an employee who participated in the conversation. “My daughter got this in the mail!” he said. “She’s still in high school, and you’re sending her coupons for baby clothes and cribs? Are you trying to encourage her to get pregnant?”

The manager didn’t have any idea what the man was talking about. He looked at the mailer. Sure enough, it was addressed to the man’s daughter and contained advertisements for maternity clothing, nursery furniture and pictures of smiling infants. The manager apologized and then called a few days later to apologize again.

On the phone, though, the father was somewhat abashed. “I had a talk with my daughter,” he said. “It turns out there’s been some activities in my house I haven’t been completely aware of. She’s due in August. I owe you an apology.”

Two of the greatest inventions of our time are the internet and the mobile phone. When Tim Berners-Lee appeared from beneath the semi-detached house that lifted up from the ground of the Olympic stadium during the London 2012 opening ceremony and the words “this is for everyone” flashed up around the edge of the stadium there can surely be little doubt that he had earned his place there. However as with any technology there is a downside as well as an upside. A technology that gives anyone, anywhere access to anything they choose has to be treated with great care and responsibility (as Spiderman's uncle said, "with great power comes great responsibility"). The data analyst at Target was only trying to improve his companies profits by identifying potential new consumers of its baby products. Inadvertently however he was uncovering information that previously would have been kept very private and only known to a few people. What should companies do in balancing a persons right to privacy with a companies right to identify new customers?

There is an interesting book out at the moment called Age of Context in which the authors examine the combined effects of five technological ‘forces’ that they see as coming together to form a ‘perfect storm’ that they believe are going to change forever our world. These five forces are mobile, social media, (big) data, sensors and location aware services. As the authors state:
“The more the technology knows about you, the more benefits you will receive. That can leave you with the chilling sensation that big data is watching you...”
In the Internet of Things paradigm, data is gold. However, making that data available relies on a 'contract' between suppliers (usually large corporations) and consumers (usually members of the public). Corporations provide a free or nominally-priced service in exchange for a consumer’s personal data. This data is either sold to advertisers or used to develop further products or services useful to consumers. Third-party applications, which build off the core service, poach customers (and related customer data) from such applications. For established networks and large corporations, this can be detrimental practice because such applications eventually poach their customers. In such a scenario, large corporations need to balance their approach to open source with commercial considerations.

Companies know that there is a difficult balancing act between doing what is commercially advantageous and doing what is ethically the right. As the saying goes – a reputation takes years to be built but can be destroyed in a matter of minutes.

IBM has an organisation within it called the Academy of Technology (AoT) which has as its membership around 1000 IBM’ers from its technical community. The job of the AoT is to focus on "uncharted business and technical opportunities" that help to "facilitate IBM's technical development" as well as "more tightly integrate the company's business and technical strategy". As an example of the way IBM concerns itself with issues highlighted by the story about Target one of the studies the academy looked at recently was into the ethics of big data and how it should approach problems we have mentioned here. Out of that study came a recommendation for a framework the company should follow in pursuiing such activities.

This ethical framework is articulated as a series of questions that should be asked when embarking on a new or challenging business venture.
  1. What do we want to do?
  2. What does the technology allow us to do?
  3. What is legally allowable?
  4. What is ethically allowable?
  5. What does the competition do?
  6. What should we do?
As an example of this consider the insurance industry.
  • The Insurance Industry provides a service to society by enabling groups of people to pool risk and protect themselves against catastrophic loss.
  • There is a duty to ensure that claims are legitimate.
  • More information could enable groups with lower risk factors to reduce their cost basis but those in higher risk areas would need to increase theirs.
  • Taken to the extreme, individuals may no longer be able to buy insurance – e.g. using genetic information to determine medical insurance premium.
How far should we take using technology to support this extreme case? Whilst it may not be breaking any laws to raise someones insurance premium to a level where they cannot afford it, is it ethically the right thing to do?

Make no mistake the challenges we face in making our planet smarter through the proper and considered use of information technology are considerable. We need to address questions such as how do we build the systems we need, where does the skilled and creative workforce come from that can do this and how do we approach problems in new and innovative ways whilst at the same time doing what is legally and ethically right.

The next part is up to you...

Thank you for your time this afternoon. I hope I have given you a little more insight into the type of company IBM is, how and why it is trying to make the planet smarter and what you might do to help if you choose to join us. You can find more information about IBM and its graduate scheme here and you can find me on Twitter and Linkedin if you’d like to continue the conversation (and I’d love it if you did).

Thank you!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Let's Build a Smarter Planet - Part III

This is the third part of the transcript of a lecture I recently gave at the University of Birmingham in the UK.

In Part I of this set of four posts I tried to give you a flavour of what IBM is and what it is trying to do to make our planet smarter. In Part II I looked at my role in IBM and here I look at what kind of attributes IBM looks for in its graduate entrants.

When I found out I was going to be doing this lecture one of the things I realised was that there was a danger I would appear too remote and disconnected from where you are today. After all, it was nearly 35 years ago when I was sitting where you are and I suspect that the thought of listening to an old timer like me going on for an hour was not very enticing. This being the case I asked a few of my (much) younger colleagues, graduate entrants, what their thoughts were on IBM and why they had joined.

One person in particular, a young zoology graduate from Cardiff University, whom I work with at the moment said that as well as the good R&D record IBM had and it’s whole smarter planet agenda the reason she joined IBM was that she:
“Wanted to be part of an organisation that cared about the world and was making an effort to change things for the better. With a fast growing and aging population we need to prepare cities, towns, hospitals, transport systems etc to be able to cope with the change. IBM seemed to understand that and seemed to be involved in trying to work out what options there are.”
I hope this shows you that IBM's smarter planet agenda is not just marketing hype but is also about genuinely trying to make a difference to the way the world works through the intelligent application of information technology.  In order to do that it needs people who can solve some of the wicked problems there are out in the world today as well as challenge conventional wisdom. Here's another story to show this...

In the early 70’s stores needed a quick way of entering product data into their systems so they knew what they had in stock. There were a number of competing standards for what were referred to as Universal Product Codes or UPC’s. An IBM engineer was asked to write a technical paper in support of a spherical code from the company RCA to be presented to executives to get the go ahead to support that standard and develop scanning hardware. The engineer however investigated the feasibility of this and realised it would not work. The error rate on scanning this pattern was too high. He went against what his management  asked him to do and went for this format instead...

Something very familiar to you all I’m sure. The point being that even then anybody in IBM could challenge their managers and be listened to provided they had the right evidence to back it up. Challenging conventional wisdom is something that is and always has been valued in this company.

Today we can challenge conventional wisdom and question things more easily than ever. Thanks to technology anyone can get to anyone.  There are no boundaries, no real hierarchies, in a world where we are all just a few Facebook friends or LinkedIn connections away from nearly everyone. You no longer have to worry about where you sit in a hierarchy, instead you just need to concentrate on what your contribution is going to be (how are you going to make that dent in the universe).

As the blogger Hugh MacLeod says:
"So your job title and job description is not what matters anymore.  A smart recruiter is not going to ask you what your title is.  They are going to ask you what have you actually done lately.  What have you accomplished? More importantly what do you want to do? Who and what will you challenge?"
 Here’s a set of characteristics that the most successful people in IBM share...
  • Adaptability. How do you cope with changing demands and stress? Are you flexible? Have you successfully completed several projects with competing deadlines?
  • Communication. Do you present information clearly, precisely and succinctly? Adapt the way you communicate to your audience? And listen to others?
  • Client focus. Can you see a situation from a client’s viewpoint, whether that’s colleagues or customers? Can you anticipate their needs?
  • Creative problem solving. Do you use ingenuity, supported by logical methods and analysis, to propose solutions? Can you anticipate problems? Do you put forward innovative ideas?
  • Drive. Will you proactively learn new skills – even if they’re beyond the scope of your current job? Will you put in the time and energy needed to achieve results?
  • Passion for IBM. Do you know what IBM does and what our most recent achievements are? Are you up to speed with the latest trends in our industry? What are the biggest challenges we face? You’ll need the facts at your fingertips and the enthusiasm to match.
  • Teamwork. How do you work with others to achieve shared goals? Do you easily build relationships with others? Are you a team player?
  • Taking ownership. Do you take responsibility for tasks/decisions? And implement decisions with speed? Can you show when you’ve worked to correct your mistakes?
You can find more detail on what IBM is looking for in its graduates and how to apply if you are interested by going here.