Strata: liberal arts meets data science, and things get important

I applied for a speaking slot at Strata’s first London event so that I could get a comp to the conference – and much to my delight, I got one. Alongside singing for my supper and trying to attend 3 tracks simultaneously, I kept myself entertained by trying to work out the culture of the event.

The audience was mostly guys – and when I say ‘mostly’ I really mean all-except-for-a-handful. But there wasn’t a frat house or trading floor or rubgy locker room kind of vibe. I would say the atmosphere was quiet and scholarly. Rather like the tea room at the British Library, but with fewer eccentric hats. In fact I only saw one. (It was a good one, though.)

There was a huge aura of earnestness and seriousness and importance-ness to the keynote agenda. I do expect a data conference to be serious. It’s only proper.  But there was a particular flavour of seriousness in this conference that was new to me.

All the keynotes (agenda here) were strong, and some were marvellous. What they had in common was not so much a concern with data, but a concern with historical, political, and social perspectives, and transformative uses. So much so that I suspect that many (perhaps too many) of the speakers had been set the same essay question.

Everyone was singing from the same hymn sheet. Everyone was doing it well, and there were some truly astounding soloists. It all added up to a stirring performance in which I felt a twinge of reflected purpose, or glory, or somesuch.

I think this is what happens when you mix liberal arts with data science, and put some heat under the mashup. If you are looking for some inspiration – or you are wondering what on earth I’m talking about –  I’d say go ahead and check out any of the keynotes, which are all online on YouTube. 

If you were to check out only one, I’d suggest:  Ben Goldacre, on his quest to out the Dark Data from ‘missing’ clinical trials, using social media.  Unsuprisingly, his details show that he is available for after-dinner speaking and also may be booked through his agent.

I also really liked  Mark Madsen on Information overloadGeorge Dyson, on The first 5 kilobytes are the hardestJake Porway,  on Good data, good values, Jeni Tenison, on Open data: dreams to reality,  and Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino on The quiet comfort of the internet of things.   But I don’t think you can go seriously amiss by checking out any of the tallks.   Enjoy.

Facebook says it isn’t an echo chamber. But is it a hall of mirrors?

Putting aside for a moment from the actual questions the Facebook Data Team asked and the answers they got, both of which are interesting (so I will try to get to grips with them – in a later post),  I think the most surprising thing about this study is the fact that Facebook publicly used itself as an experiment,  and nobody blinked.    What they did in the study was only a tiny, weensy bypass operation.  (The experiment involved  withholding some newsfeed items from its users that they would normally have seen as result of the operation of the service.)    But it was surgery none the less.

My own private speculation is that Facebook experiments on itself all the time, and then quietly gets on with applying the lessons it learns by doing so.   But the Data Team’s world-facing work is usually correlational and observational rather than directly experimental.  So this work is different: here, they did tweak around with Facebook, and they did publish their results.  And I am surprised that nobody seems to be interested in that fact.  I don’t have an issue with the fact they did it.  In fact,  I’d be a bit disappointed if they didn’t.  But then I’m an experimentalist by background.

Don’t get the wrong idea: I do care whether I see stuff that’s sent to me.   When I get the post delivered from the postman each morning I don’t expect him to randomly hide some of it from me just to see what would happen.    Interestingly I have heard more than one story in which it turns out that is just what (a few lone and deranged) postal workers sometimes actually do.   But although this isn’t unheard of, at least as an urban myth,  it’s not what I expect, and were the behaviour to be discovered, I would expect it to be stopped.   Ignoring my post is my job, not my postman’s.

But my view of my Facebook Feed is different.  My understanding of my Feed is that it is cooked up according to a secret sauce recipe which, although it isn’t exactly to my personal taste, represents Facebooks’ best efforts at optimising something of interest to it.   And I believe the recipe for this sauce is constantly evolving, although the brand remains the same.   So to find there has been a tiny systematic tweak made to it, whereby some information was hidden for some people when it would normally have been displayed,  is neither a big shock, nor a bad one.

What surprises me about it is that it seems to have been so generally unsurprising.  I have a few different theories about this:

1.  the Eric Reis theory

The Lean Startup ideas of Eric Reis have become so pervasive and “baked into the DNA” of our culture that everyone who thinks about the matter expects to become part of some massive multivariate test whenever they encounter any application or platform.

2.  the filter bubble theory

Nobody who would potentially have been offended or puzzled by having their NewsFeed tweaked around with actually understood what was happening.

Here are some screenshots I took this morning about the relative numbers of people who publicly lauded the research summary, versus the full research article.

The score is as follows.   There were over 5,000 social actions performed on the summary.   And 165 on the article itself.

3.  the common sense theory

The change made was so non-material in its potential and actual impact that nobody in their right minds could possibly make a big deal of it.

So, no shortage of theories.  But I’ve no idea which one is right.   Do you?    My guess about the recipe is:  20% Theory 1, 60% Theory 2, and 20% Theory 3.

The highly munchable and crunchable soundbite about the study, distributed with the summary ,  was that the research demonstrates that Facebook is not an echo chamber.   This meme has bounced around languidly, albeit dominantly,  following the release of the research.   I believe that the research, while interesting, does not actually warrant this conclusion directly.   But what the research does demonstrate, by its very existence, is that whether or not Facebook is or is not an echo chamber, for sure it sometimes acts like a hall of mirrors.

Source: ItDan - Flickr

So, can games learn from TV? (And if so, what…?)

By popular demand (whose name is Ed (Hi Ed.  – Ed)),  I’m doing a quick post about the talk Sorrell from ScreenPop gave last week at the Evolve conference in London.

Before I went, I made some excited noises about the Sorrell talk because my guess was that he was going to be talking about “social game TV”.    Just think.   If social TV is hot and social games are hot then just think how hot “social TV games” could be.  Ooh.  (And natch it could also be utter crap, if you do it badly.  But the upside is real.)

Only one hitch: I was wrong, wrong, wrong.    Not that a social game layer on top of TV wouldn’t be awesome™.  It could be.

But social TV games just weren’t the tack Sorrell took in his talk.   He did a pretty  straight rant-flame about what games can learn from TV.   His take, as I understood it, is that TV is way more successful than games in terms of the value of the industry, and the number of eyeball-hours, probably always will be unless games get their act together and listen up to the following words of wisdom:

  • TV understands how to use familiar music to cue emotions – games are pretty rubbish at this by comparison
  • TV uses story loops well, if games combined story loops with rat loops [i.e. compulsion loops] nobody would ever leave the house again
  • the games industry will never succeed until it hires more women, 15% isn’t enough
  • TV has cracked the recommendation engine problem, it’s called channels, and 80% of shows are still watched this way, real-time at broadcast time
  • there’s a special experience to do with live events, although ‘live-ification’ is a  word only used by particularly horrible TV execs
  • no game justs gives you a task with no choice, but turn on the TV and you’ve done everything you need to do, and passive is good.

All very interesting, in an intentionally controversial but still content-ful way.  Just not what I was expecting.

So, in the question period I asked Sorrell what he thought of social TV.    He rolled his eyes a bit,  in an “oh dear oh dear not that question again” kind of way, but said that if anyone was going to do it,  it would be  Zeebox, one reason being that they allow unofficial apps.

Les jeux sont faits….