Not just for journos. Poring over data, and a bit of Google’s HR practice.

My regular reader(s) will probably know that I’m a fan of the Guardian newspaper and its on-line efforts.  It does a fine job with data, both in terms of sourcing it and visualizing it. Have a look at the website and data blog here.   I’ve also ranted about the need for more numeracy in HR on a number of occasions. This post will be more of the same.

Leading newspapers are making  effective use of visualization today. As an  example,  the US treasury bond ownership graphic is far more impactful than a simple listing.

It goes deeper than just a nice graph though, at a recent lecture at Leeds Trinity College,  Guardian Data Blog editor Simon Rogers presented with Tim Berners-Lee about data journalism.

Data journalism involves visualising or scrutinising often complex amounts of statistical information.

TBL had this to say.

"Journalists need to be data-savvy. It used to be that you would get stories by chatting to people in bars, and it still might be that you’ll do it that way some times.

"But now it’s also going to be about poring over data and equipping yourself with the tools to analyse it and picking out what’s interesting. And keeping it in perspective, helping people out by really seeing where it all fits together, and what’s going on in the country."

It seems to me that most professions could do with a solid dose of data visualization and the accompanying scrutiny. I’m not talking here about expensive tools, but about the love of data, and the joy of finding stuff out, getting stuck into the numbers.

I’ve given a couple of lectures on HR topics, and I’ve been hammering home on the analytics topic, but I think next time, I’ll bring some more data visualization to the party. I strongly believe that we need to see more focus on data visualization across all areas of business, but the HR department needs serious help.

I was pleased to read that Google came up with its 8 rules of management.  At first sight they  seem a typical list that one would find in any airport management book, but they are rooted in an empirical study.  Google has built its business on analysing data, so it is  not surprising that they decided to root around in their own HR data.   I do wish more HR departments would fall in love with data.

I think it is possible to be “people-centric” and “data driven” at the same time. Using numbers  to inform decisions and drive buy in isn’t treasonable.

Advertisements

A short, sort of review of Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows. What Google is Doing to our Brains.”

Many technology writers  deify or reify technology.  There is often an assumption that more technology is by definition a good thing.  Nicholas Carr’s recent book challenges that. This is probably why many tech types don’t seem to like it.

Looking through my blog archive, I’ve often disagreed with Carr, but rather than just base my view on this latest book via headlines and what others wrote, I decided to buy the book and read it to make up my own mind.

I found it to be an excellent read. Well researched, tight prose, and an eclectic mix of scientific, philosophical and social material.  I was on a cycling holiday when I read it. My blackberry had given up the ghost, and the only computer I had with me was the bike computer.

I began the book expecting  to disagree with Carr. I make my living out of researching technology so I figured that I would join the queue of other tech folks dissing his “dystopian” views.  By about a third of the way through I found myself agreeing with him.  He spends part of a chapter discussing Joe Weizenbaum, who should be more famous and read than he is.  More than any Computer Scientist, Weizenbaum challenges the notion that technological progress is good for humanity. Carr echoes many of Weizenbaum’s concerns, in a more accessible form.

In reading the book, I’m reminded of two other writers, Alain de Botton, who is my favourite modern non-fiction writer.

He says much the same as Carr, but more lyrically. 

I felt keenly the painful psychological adjustments required by life in modernity: the need to juggle a respect for the potential offered by science with an awareness of how perplexingly limited and narrowly framed might be its benefits. I felt the temptation of hoping that all activities would acquire the excitement and rigours of engineering while recognising the absurdity of those who, overly impressed by technological achievement, lose sight of how doggedly we will always be pursed by baser forms of error and absurdity.

quoted from the Sorrows and Pleasures of Work.

 his recent post is also on the money.

One of the more embarrassing and self-indulgent challenges of our time is the task of relearning how to concentrate. The past decade has seen an unparalleled assault on our capacity to fix our minds steadily on anything. To sit still and think, without succumbing to an anxious reach for a machine, has become almost impossible.

The obsession with current events is relentless. We are made to feel that at any point, somewhere on the globe, something may occur to sweep away old certainties—something that, if we failed to learn about it instantaneously, could leave us wholly unable to comprehend ourselves or our fellows. We are continuously challenged to discover new works of culture—and, in the process, we don’t allow any one of them to assume a weight in our minds. We leave a movie theater vowing to reconsider our lives in the light of a film’s values. Yet by the following evening, our experience is well on the way to dissolution, like so much of what once impressed us: the ruins of Ephesus, the view from Mount Sinai, the feelings after finishing Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilyich…

The need to diet, which we know so well in relation to food, and which runs so contrary to our natural impulses, should be brought to bear on what we now have to relearn in relation to knowledge, people, and ideas. Our minds, no less than our bodies, require periods of fasting.

The second is GM Hopkins. I’ll leave you with a verse from the Habit of Perfection.

Elected Silence, sing to me
And beat upon my whorlèd ear,
Pipe me to pastures still and be
The music that I care to hear.

I’m glad I took the time to read Carr’s book without distraction.  I need to find more time to savour the joys of quiet reading and thinking.  As De Botton says “To sit still and think, without succumbing to an anxious reach for a machine.”

On European funding, Airbus and Software.

This post was lurking in my Live Writer, but then Mike’s post spurred me to dust it off and rework it a bit. Over on Techcrunch UK he was pretty damning of EU research funding for the Theseus and Quaero projects…EU taxpayers to fund $306m Google rival. No wonder the Yanks think we’re dumb

A couple of weeks ago Vinnie had a somewhat more gentle dig at European technology industry too.

Airbus A380 at SFO, from the flickrstream of Telstar Logistics

Vinnie picked up on the Airbus comment at Cebit and said:

The Airbus for the European IT Industry is what we need,” says the president of Bitkom, the leading high-tech industry association in Germany.You keep funding that, Europe. In fact, we would love to lease Airbuses and send our folks from Washington to Brussels so they can help you design and grow the program. That way it would also keep them away from our thousands of technology entrepreneurs. Our preferred way of delivering technology innovation.

I’d like to raise several points in response to Vinnie and Mike.

1. The assumption the US software industry is somehow subsidy free ignores the history of the software industry, and the huge role that the US government plays in funding software research and driving demand in the US. Check out this book by Martin Campbell-Kelly, From Airline Reservations to Sonic the Hedgehog: A History of the Software Industry, MIT Press, Cambridge Mass., 2003. Herewith a quote..

The likely prime reason for U.S. software supremacy is a paradoxical one –government support for the industry. The paradox arises from the fact that, although the United States is non-interventionist in principle, in practice it promoted the early industry massively by creating a market for computers and software through programs such as the SAGE project, the Department of Defense’s ADP program, and the NASA program, to mention only the largest..”

And this still goes on today. In fact the whole software industry owes a big debt of gratitude to the US government and its big wallet. I bet if we were to dig around into the history of many of the most successful US technology companies and products we would find a research funded project at its core. (Netscape and the browser- thanks NSCA, and oh, and indeed Google itself.)

2. The president of BITkom knows a whole lot more about software entrepreneurship than the quote implies. August-Wilhelm Scheer is the founder of the company that builds ARIS, one of the leading German software companies and a major global player in the BPM market. He is an entrepreneur, not a bureaucrat.

3. His main point about the power of Airbus not about subsidies or government meddling, but that Airbus iis a joint Anglo-French company, and that both countries could be more successful through deeper commercial collaboration. Scheer knows, as he is also a professor at Saarbrücken University, close to the french border.

4.I don’t have a lot of details on the French Quaero project and the background for the split but to call the Theseus project a Google rival is missing the main point of this project. But I guess it makes a neat newspaper headline.

This is what the Theseus project is actually about.

So the Theseus project is not intended to develop a new Internet search engine to compete with Google and which could be used in every situation that crops up in the digital data world. The data contained on the Internet are simply far too heterogeneous and chaotic for that. What’s more, at the end of the project, there won’t even be an Internet platform – probably not even a physical product, says Thomas Huber, press spokesperson for the Theseus project. Instead, Theseus aims to create standards for semantic searches within specific areas. With partners from the business community, notably Siemens and SAP, and research associations such as the Fraunhofer Gesellschaft and various universities, Theseus therefore consists of subprojects which focus on specific application scenarios. As a spokeswoman from the Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology explains, these have been selected in advance by companies and the Ministry itself on the grounds that they appear to be particularly promising.

The project is essentially about semantics, standards and the longer term future of the web, and it hopes to drive both fundamental and applied research.

Technology Research projects require funding. VC’s don’t fund primary research, and very few companies can afford to take the long term focus that it requires. Let’s take a well known example, a research project that evolved over about 20 years. The work started in the the late 1970’s and in 1987 a research alliance was formed between Erlangen-Nuremberg University and the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits within the framework of the European Union-funded EUREKA project EU147. This led to the MP3 format. No EU funding, no IPod, I guess.

A while ago I argued that Europe needs to invest more in pure software research.

It is about time that the governments in Europe started to invest in the future of IT rather than just subsidizing cows.

Here in Europe I reckon governments need to do two things: fund research and help create an environment where smart people can build businesses with those innovations. The German government funding this research is a step in the right direction, but governments in Europe also need to do a whole lot more to encourage an environment to exploit those innovations. Sometimes this means getting out the way.

Technorati Tags: ,,,

Disclosure: As part of my academic work at the University of Karlsruhe, I have a connection with the project.