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A lucky dog and what he showed about doing good with data

Jasper the dog’s story, in which luck turned from bad to good, was a clear-cut case of doing good with data.

He was found along a road in a rural part of Southern California dragging his back half in the dust. He’d been injured. Someone brought him to a shelter — which is where his luck might have turned very bad. He could have spent a short stint on pain meds as he waited for adoption, then a quick shot of pentobarbital.

Jill Dyché told the story at the recent Pacific Northwest BI and Analytics Summit in her presentation on doing good with data — which arose from her work with Los Angeles-area dog shelters. By day, she is SAS vice president of best practices and at other times she is an advocate for modern data practices to improve dog rescue.

Bad KPIs

You can imagine how a shelter manager would figure Jasper’s fate, based on no data but impressions over years running barebones operations: He couldn’t walk, he wasn’t photogenic, and he had a high risk of post-traumatic stress. To those sad KPIs, the manager would add the cost of patience: He occupied scarce cubic yards of kennel space, ate a cup of food twice a day, drank precious California water, and required a friendly pat once or twice a day. Even so, the dog was in a “great mood,” as Jill described him. The shelter gave him a break.

Real luck struck, though, when Jill did a video of him, one of many she’s done since 2014 and posted on Facebook. Jill sits on the grass with a dog extolling the dog’s playful friendliness, high IQ, and good looks. Why bother? Because videotaped dogs get adopted far more often than those who don’t — contrary to belief in the shelter community. She has data to prove it.

Good attracts more good

Does the cool-eyed business community care about doing good with data? Apparently it does. Several of the assembled two dozen data-industry experts chimed in with stories of the appeal. Chris Twogood, vice president of marketing at Teradata, told how several candidates for a high level position wanted to know about the company’s program. Josh Good, director of product marketing at Qlik, told how Qlik people donate their data skills for good causes. Others had similar stories.

The rough and tumble of doing good

Jill broadened out from dog rescue to find other ways organizations were doing good with data. She found four main categories — with examples of doing good that are not as clear-cut as Jasper.

• Organizations have been using data to rethink old problems, such as declining fisheries. The Sustainable Fisheries Group, based at University of California Santa Barbara, aided by Stanford ChangeLabs and funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, hopes to help thousands of small fish harvesters to improve their practices. As wild salmon stocks decline, for example, these business people can get help finding other fish to harvest as salmon take a rest.

• Give one, get one. Buy a pair of Tom’s Shoes and another pair goes to someone in need of shoes who can’t afford them. Smile-Squared gives toothbrushes away. Soapbox, selling “soap that matters,” uses analytics to monitor its suppliers as it gives away bacteria-fighting soap around the U.S and the world.

• Profit for good. Elon Musk, though a villain to some, supports open data, such as data in support of solar power. On the other hand, there’s Indian gaming and its benefits for about as many people as can crowd around a craps table.

• Government — for me the most interesting. This is where the rough and tumble of city politics really puts “good” to the test. The nascent “smart cities” movement, which puts networked sensor data to work on city priorities, forces tricky questions: What exactly are the priorities and, having decided them, what data do we look at? Traffic flow? Sustainability? Neighborhood sociability and good restaurants? In my own favorite and unfavorite city, Berkeley CA, they say the hell with good traffic flow. Let’s have good food! I’m all for that except when I’m driving across town.

It’s all so complicated. Our love for Jasper and the goodness he means to us is so much easier than the “good” of most other things. Still, we have no choice but to try. As I think I’ve heard Jill say, one dog at a time.

Data: it’s just notation, not reality

The always fascinating Donald Farmer, former Qlik exec and now Treehive Strategy principal, has news for users of data business: “Data isn’t the real world.” It’s just a reflection that’s framed by stories we tell ourselves.

Stories come first, contrary to the data industry’s dubious vision. Data, the marketing likes to imply, is a divine compass from a virginal birth. Just get some and you’ll know the way.

There was no virginal birth for data but, as Donald Farmer illustrates, there is jazz. In his presentation to two dozen industry experts at this year’s annual Pacific Northwest BI and Analytics Summit, you can try this: Force a John Coltrane song into musical notation, then give it to 10 jazz musicians. They’ll produce 10 different songs — and not one will be Coltrane’s song.

“People say we’re recording [business events],” said Donald, “but we’re not. We’re notating it. It’s a representation. Sampling is more like it.” He’s not the first one to say such things, but it takes someone of Donald’s authority to win much notice.

Data needs interpretation, and that’s always based on assumptions. “When we say we ‘lost an opportunity,'” he said, “that’s just a story we tell ourselves.” Sales people often come back from meetings gloomy about lost sales. “They say, ‘I’m going to miss my quarterly target, or my girlfriend will leave me because I couldn’t give her the vacation I promised.’ We think that’s the real world.”

The “lost” sale may be not be lost for long, such as when the prospect comes back in six months after the competitor failed to deliver. The salesperson may also cultivate a trusted-advisor role and win in the long run. And the girlfriend leaving just because she couldn’t go to Cancun, well, maybe that’s a good thing.

Even in IoT (Internet of Things), what’s assumed to be pure data, hot off the sensor, was configured based on beliefs. What is “just a binary signal” is limited, for example, to a given spectrum.

What’s a business person to do? Farmer suggests that data users “walk back down the ladder” and to inspect any unconsciously adopted limits. There, on the lower rungs of the mind, you might find unfounded assumptions, stories, and alternate premises.

Donald’s observations stirred up concerns, of course. Suzanne Hoffman, veteran BI software executive now with ZenOptics, asked about the effect of too many individual interpretations. “That’s chaos,” she said. “You can’t have that.” Donald replied that that’s just competitive advantage: “Businesses do things in different ways,” he said. Suzanne: “Isn’t the goal of methodology to accept thinking ‘outside the box’?” Donald: “Methodology can get in the way of doing that.”

Merv Adrian, vice president of research at Gartner, said, “It’s the difference between implicit and explicit…We live every day in the implicit set of choices and the ideology that represents. … If we can deconstruct how we got here, we might make different choices.”

Ideology is embedded even in the design of analysis tools. Tableau makes certain things easy for those assumed to be using it, skilled analysts (at least according to Qlik dogma). They are different from the users Qlik assumes it serves, everyday business people. Qlik’s users, less skilled in analytics, won’t have to face statistically-laden trend lines, Donald explains — though he hasn’t yet said what Qlik offers instead.

Donald’s forthcoming book will go into far more depth on the subject in the first half. The second half will address handling ambiguity. He expects it to be out in the second quarter of 2018.

Data lake: compositional or architectural?

Is the data lake following the typical path for new technology? Merv Adrian, research VP, data management and integration and Gartner was talking about data lakes and big data projects at the just-concluded Pacific Northwest BI and Analytics Summit. Josh Good, senior director of product marketing at Qlik asked the question.

Merv’s answer:

That’s a terrific question. We’re talking about a phenomenon of some recency which is the notion of the new platform sell. [It’s] not a new application, not a new function, but a new platform designed to replace existing ones or supplement them (usually the first until they figure out that’s not practical). And that, I think, is the larger market failure … or the blunting of the thrust that there’s this new opportunity to build new platforms.

I’m relatively convinced that people coming into the market now are not thinking about the replacement of the end to end. They are looking for parts. If they’ve gotten at all sophisticated or knowledgable about how to achieve the outcome that they presumably have defined, then they have put together in their head at least some sort of chart they can draw on the wall, which is a bunch of boxes that connect to one another with flows, and they’re identifying the APIs among them.

That’s becoming an issue especially as we move to the cloud and people start talking about services-based architectures and are thinking about the way they want to get to where they want to go is a composition exercise, not an architecture one.

BI Summit / Goin’ up north where the wind blows tall

I’ve never figured out why one hard-thumping song by Tom Waits brings to my mind the annual Pacific Northwest BI and Analytics Summit. Yet it does, even now as I prepare for the six-hour drive up to Grants Pass, Oregon. It’s my sixth consecutive time, and the Summit’s sixteenth.

I start out the drive with “Goin’ Out West” on my mind. “I’m goin’ out west where the wind blows tall / ‘Cause Tony Franciosa used to date my ma.” By the time I arrive on the Weasku Inn’s big lawn, dig out a beer from the ice chest, and say hello to the nearest person, the song’s gone. It’s show time.

The pessimism of “Goin’ Out West” seems like a raspberry at the event’s breezy conversation and such traditions as grilled salmon dinner on the deck, tequila shots later, and friendly conversation until you can’t stay up any longer. Very late, you can glance up at one window and imagine Clark Gable mourning Carole Lombard. He spent two weeks doing that up there.

But forget the raspberry. It’s just fun. Though the leading men and women there do obsess about technology and bluff about everything else, this is a summit, you know. Wind happens at high altitude, and everyone’s got altitude here.

Astute readers will observe that “Goin’ Out West” makes fun of those who, it would seem, should stay home. “I’m no extra, baby, I’m a leading man,” says Waits’ character. He drives his “Olds 88” with “a hole in the roof the shape of a heart.” He’s “goin’ out west where they’ll appreciate me.” He’s headed for Hollywood.

No one wears a name badge here. Anyone can hang out on the deck and be a leading man or leading woman. Everyone knows each other or is about to. You can change your name to Hannibal or maybe just Rex.

Twitter hashtag is #BISUM.

BI Summit / Putting one more V on big data: virtue

Big data needs a bigger heart than it’s shown so far — essentially the point that Jill Dyché will make this Friday at the sixteenth annual Pacific Northwest BI and Analytics Summit in Grants Pass, OR.

Organizations have a responsibility to improve lives, as she puts it, “one citizen, patient, taxpayer, sports fan, and dog at a time.” To report on her presentation, which precedes a 90 minute discussion among 20 industry experts and observers, will be three dutiful reporters: longtime industry observer Steve Swoyer, TechTarget executive editor Craig Stedman, and me.

Jill’s session will be one of four. The first two occur on Friday, one on Saturday, and the last one on Sunday. The three others are by Donald Farmer, recently of Qlik and now of his own Treehive Strategy, on the analytic experience; Mike Ferguson of his own, UK-based Intelligent Business Strategies on the new-and-cool edge analytics; and Merv Adrian of Gartner on data lake architectures.

Jill’s topic continues on her theme of last year. She told how a dog shelter using pre-digital processes sent a dog to be euthanized just as would-be adoptees asked to take the dog. That was sad, but the eventual adoption of digital processes, which she drove, certainly prevented future tragedies.

Getting for-profit organizations to use data for more than profit might be harder. Do companies really care about philanthropy? Or does most business leadership believe that one-offs are good enough? Is it good enough to ally with the Sierra Club?

We’ll see what she and others have to say.

Twitter hashtag is #BISUM.