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Business Technology

Data comparisons show just how far ahead the U.S. is in tech

It started with a friend’s interesting project.  https://gotelonica.wordpress.com sets forth to draw comparisons between two European cities.  “Everyday stories, vivid images, mutual interests and hopeful efforts”… will have to be good enough though because finding decent comparative data is pretty complicated!

If you search the internet for “city comparison” or anything like that, you are most likely to find a US site comparing US cities.  Mobility in the United States is a fact of life.  And great websites cater to all sorts of ways to discover if your new job offer is as good as it sounds.  Or if you should buy a house there or anything else you are interested in discovering.   Similar efforts within Europe are almost non existent.   UN Habitat data doesn’t include Sweden’s second largest city.  Interesting online articles with catchy titles such as “these are the world’s dirtiest/most dangerous/best cities” rarely include both Thessaloniki and Goteborg.

In fact an American website offered the best weather and crime comparison.   Thessaloniki has a lower crime index and higher safety index.  Which doesn’t say much unless they analyse exactly how they get, process and quantify the data.  Being Greek I know for a fact that the stats coming out of that particular civil service are far from perfect.

You may eventually find some meaningful ways to compare the cities, if you try hard enough.  Gotelonica is an excellent idea because statistics are almost meaningless on their own in such a complex environment.  European cities cannot be set side by side like American ones.  We have no real federal or state system in place.  The European Union is meant to help us work in different places but in fact there is not that much mobility.  And the lack of data is a pretty convincing evidence of this.

We are decades behind America and it shows.   Much like my objections to Greek Police statistics above, almost any matter (other than the weather) concerning European cities is bound to become political.  Different measurements, different resources allocated to statistics, different infrastructures which make the numbers rather drab tools to paint a true picture.  It makes it even harder to build any sort of technological platforms or apps.  So we just sit around while Google and Facebook speed along by getting users to volunteer information, live with their tools and then use machine learning to offer better judgements than any European tool ever could.  Google traffic data is the best pan European resource for how fast you will get from A to B.  While we argue about how and why our GPS alternative never got off the ground, Maps just keeps getting better.

So next time you start talking about European tech entrepreneurs, take a moment to consider how hard it is to get decent databases to work with.  Or to attract other Europeans to your city to work for you.   Or even to calculate ahead of time the chances of either of these two happening.

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Business Communication Society Technology

The Asian Toad and Google research for business

My friend James is probably the smartest person I know.  Whether he is teaching himself music in order to do the soundtrack to an amazing documentary of his, building innovative mammal free zones in New Zealand, riding a motorbike or in Madagascar fighting the Asian toad.

The what?  When a modern human comes across something unknown, we Google it.  Just like that.  Which means that billions (3.2 billion) of searches a day globally can tell us a lot.  People in the UK search for “toad” more than other countries, but of course there are toad in books, children’s series, music band and all sorts of other things.   Maybe there are opportunities in those for some sort of co-promotion.  The English are followed by Ausies, Americans, Canadians, NZ and …Nigeria?  Following Google searches is a bit like the dictionary game.  I just spent five minutes learning about “The Grasshopper and the Toad”, a short story by a Nigerian, as well as the use of the word “toad” in Nigerian politics.  Which is exactly the sort of peripheral knowledge you need as a business when researching your topic.

For example searches for “toad” have seasonality.  Unfortunately this doesn’t seem to be because of some amphibian habit.  For example in the UK, October seems to be the main month for “toad in the hole”, a popular local dish, comfort food for many.  By contrast in the America, searches for “toad” peak every year at May and Arkansas is the state leading in interest.  If you are planning a campaign for the Asian toad, maybe do it in the winter when people so you don’t compete with all the people asking “what is the difference between a toad and a frog?”    In Australia searches for toads are in the Northern territory, don’t waste any ad money elsewhere.

Of course Google “normalises” the data.  Which means they try and mess it up enough so you can’t reverse engineer it, or use it to compete.  Still, with time, even without numbers, you can see that there are more searches for a “horned frog” than an “asian toad”.  You can follow that path too and look for promotional opportunities if you want to.

I picked the example of the Asian Toad on purpose.  If you are using a business problem you are often too close to the topic to explore.  For example searches for “toad” correlate in seasonality in the U.S. with searches for “vinyl siding”, “house paints”, “insects” and “utility trailer”.  Each of these terms merits some online detective work.  Working around the limitations of data provided by Google is actually inspiring.  Searches for “frog” correlate mostly with “garden clogs” in America but while checking this out I discovered “save the frogs”, a poetry competition in Australia which made quite a digital dent in terms of stats.

Searches for “toad” in Australia correlate with the term “religious”.  The search to figure out why this occurs won’t fit in a blog post.  But you see the point:  playing around with Google search data brings new ideas to your project.  It changes priorities by giving new angles.  Something you consider secondary might be a huge business opportunity in a specific segment.    New ideas are born, old ones improved.  We are all essentially trying to build a model of how things work.  Use Google’s model to tweak yours.

It is a big and complex world.  Don’t let your assumptions narrow things down too quickly.  Oh, and check out http://jamesreardon.org/ – tell people about the Asian toad and let’s all do something about it.

Categories
Technology

Open sourcing privacy: my master plan

The advances in neurology are fascinating right now. MRI scans no longer limit themselves to one brain.  It is the interaction of people which ups the ante.  How do my mood changes affect you?  If you don’t want to get bogged down in mirror neurons and spindle neurons and the detailed science of it all, I thoroughly recommend “Social Intelligence” by Daniel Goleman.    Snap judgements on whether or not we like someone or a product are well worth analyzing because the same principles are even more important online.

I famously wrote that I would sacrifice one of my hands for access to the raw data of Facebook or Google.  Well, I just thought of a good way of keeping all my hands and still getting those invaluable insights!  While the media suddenly get excited about privacy online, projects like Diaspora are a good idea.  Yes, I don’t like the idea of giving away my personal information, my thoughts, photos or anything else to someone else.  Of course they will try and make money out of it!  But what if we could establish a research cause worthy of being a part in?

Remember when everyone installed SETI screensavers to help crunch data from alien-looking observatories?   Or the global appeal to help process human genome analysis?  (The idea was we would help discover solutions to global diseases, turns out we just helped pharmaceuticals get richer!)  But we can use the same principle, that same altruistic sensibility to get people’s personal data.  Heck, we can beat Facebook at it’s own game!

Here’s how it would work: a set of totally trustworthy institutions throughout the world, something like the United Nations, runs the show.  OK, we don’t really trust anyone and we all think that once data is digitized it can and will go anywhere, but we will have to settle for the best available trust levels.  Then we get widgets, could be in the browser, could be anywhere else on your computer or mobile phone, that monitor what we do.  Facebook, Twitter, email, whatever we feel comfortable sharing.  Here’s the catch: the data is whitewashed of our names and other personal details from the beginning.  I may choose my data to be shared as “a guy in Greece”.  In fact I, and many others I suspect, would be more willing to give really private information to such efforts, stuff I would never put online otherwise.

Open privacy policy from the beginning because the whole point of this tool is to help you understand how much information you are giving away with everything you do.  (Yes of course Symantec or some other security company could attach it to their antivirus but it wouldn’t be the same, read on.)   And here is where I get my data at last:  universities or other researchers from private or public institutions can apply for access to your data.  They write up a proposal, what they will do, what they will look for and what insights they will give us.  Maybe they will give whoever gives their data up more detailed information to make it worth participating.  So in fact, I won’t even have to do the research, I will just install the browser plug in and choose whichever scientist makes nice proposals!  Then they will give me their findings to mull over.

We will effectively be breaking the monopoly that large institutions like Google or Facebook have over user data this way.  Sounds hard to sell but simply getting the academic community involved would be a huge leg up; in fact they would sell it for me as they would all need the platform to get their research done.   We could even make sneaky Facebook apps for it!