Thursday, September 29, 2011

small data and root cause analysis

Sometimes it's not the "big data" that you need to solve the problem at hand. Sometimes you need small, focused, local data and a whole lot of smarts about the analysis.

Once upon a time, in a galaxy far away, I was responsible for corporate quality. Metrics were popular at the time, but they were somewhat abstracted from the nitty gritty of actual customer problems. Well, we had a very unhappy customer. "Wicked unhappy" as we say in the depths of New England. They kept telling us our system was buggy and unreliable. Everybody thought it was a bunch of different software problems. Engineering and support management fixated on responding to bug reports quickly as they came in. Timely fixes are good for sure, but there seemed to be something else going on.

I collected the raw data, that is, all the bug reports we'd gotten from that customer. I assembled the multitudes (support, quality, software engineering, hardware engineering). I drew a bunch of buckets on the whiteboard and we categorized each one according to the root cause. Sometimes we had to do a root cause analysis to determine which bucket it belonged in. Surprisingly, many seemingly unrelated bug reports stemmed from the same root cause. We counted how many were in each bucket. Suddenly we knew where to look.

The numbers pointed to an area we hadn't considered to be an issue: the disk-mirroring hardware. Digging a little deeper into the data, there seemed to be a correlation with a particular supplier and with systems built during a certain window of time. Turns out we'd gotten a batch of defective controllers from our supplier. Their testing hadn't caught it, nor had our hardware testing. The problem only showed up when running the complex software on top of it all.

Hardware replaced. Customer satisfied. Lesson learned. Sometimes data is just what you need to lead you in the direction of the cause.

Friday, September 16, 2011

what if girls who like math could cure breast cancer?

What if instead of buying t-shirts about being too pretty to do homework or being allergic to algebra, our best and brightest young women took on the challenge of fighting breast cancer? 

Seeing Tweets and Facebook posts about the absurd t-shirts and then seeing Tweets from a former co-worker about the "healthymagination" open innovation challenge to fund promising ideas to improve breast cancer diagnostics just announced by GE knocked me upside the head with a huge "Aha!" The challenge was launched in collaboration with venture capital firms Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Venrock, Mohr Davidow and MPM Capital. The effort will focus on data in partnership with O’Reilly Media. The magic word "data" sprang off the screen at me. Data science, as folks call working with these huge data sets nowadays, is math! Data analytics is math! Yes. Math!

What if we valued girls who like math? Not only can girls do math, but they also have a vested interest in improving breast cancer diagnosis and treatment.  What if girls who like math are part of the solution?

With Data Science growing in importance and asking the big questions, it's about time the popular culture embraced girls (and boys too) who like math. Math can make a difference. Let's do something with all this "big data". We just might find some answers to those big questions.

What if girls who like math could be the cure?

Thursday, September 15, 2011

#MIN30 Wrap Up

Our hosts: SCVNGR

Yes folks, it's that time again already, Mass Innovation Night number 30! Thanks to our hosts at SCVNGR, we had an excellent space with lots of nooks and crannies. Every time I turned a corner, there were new products.
As usual, I tried to check out every product. That was a challenge this time, what with the number of products and the nooks and crannies, so I did miss a couple.

I had a nice chat with HeyWire about the difficulties of staying connected to my brother in the Emirates. Free worldwide texting is definitely appealing. SMS to Twitter is also a great idea. HeyWire does a great job of bringing all these communication options together. I also liked how they worked H E Y into their QR code.

Speaking of communication, it was great to meet Twitter acquaintance @trishofthetrade from Vsnap, the cool platform for sharing short video messages. I love the idea of being able to attach items to the video -- gives way more context.
Repeat Receipt

The folks from Repeat Receipt not only have a great marketing/promotion idea to help merchants increase repeat business and give rewards to consumers but also bright orange T-shirts. They win best costume for #MIN30. There's no best hat award this time as nobody was wearing a hat. Oh, and best prop goes to the Chinese gong that Bobbie used to get the attention of the attendees.

Who knew there was still room for innovation in email marketing? Revotas offers a marketing platform that brings together email, social media, mobile, and web channels and delivers analytics-driven and personalized customer communications across all of them.
Water My Blog

I enjoyed talking with Water My Blog about how their network of writers creates optimized blog posts specifically designed for your company and your industry. It's a nifty content-driven way to do SEO. 

Experts Corner

The Experts Corner was buzzing with entrepreneurs seeking all kinds of expert advice. I think the placement of the food at the far end of the Experts Corner drove a lot of traffic to the experts too.

College Golf Pass
I passed on the chance to try out my putting skills, but did very much enjoy talking with College Golf Pass. Their discount program for Massachusetts college students helps improve the game for college students and supports the local golf community. One of my brothers is a golfer and back in the day he could've used such a program to afford more time on the course.
Brian demonstrating Comparz

Comparz was off in one of those nooks and crannies I mentioned, but I did get to check out their application for in-depth user reviews and rankings of services for small and mid-sized businesses (SMBs) -- kind of like Yelp for B2B.

I don't think I got a picture of VizConnect, who were sharing a conference room with Comparz.

Century Suites

I made it a priority to talk to Century Suites about co-working space in the palatial Trade Center executive offices. It would be awesome to get out of my house if I can afford it. Turns out they do offer co-working space, called Launch. Of course, the way things are going I'll have a run of clients who want me to work on-site all the time and I won't need an office. I took a flyer with the Launch info. We shall see.  Anyway, I think I drove past that building on 128 at least 5 times in the past 3 days.

Yottaa Presentation & Crowded Table
My favorite of the four presenters was Yottaa. They make websites faster. It's amazing what latency can cost you and it's great to see a cloud-based service that addresses performance in a meaningful way.

Client Types

Client Types identifies key behaviors of customer buying style and predicts customer response for sales, marketing and customer retention. This behavioral data allows businesses to create more targeted campaigns. directs you how to improve the interaction to close more sales, improve marketing response or retain more customers. Know your audience as I always say. BTW, the types have cool animal names like Social Lion. I turned out to be a Helpful Penguin. Oddly appropriate since I love penguins and traveled to Antarctica to see them.

As is traditional, I'll close with an "Expert Looking Expert" shot.
Expert Looking Expert

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

another 19th century #techcomm quote

Sometimes your documentation is unintentionally a marketing tool.
"A WELL KNOWN TECHNICAL WRITER of this city was recently asked his opinion of a certain make of machine-tools, and his answer was so unfavorable, and accompanied by such unnecessary detraction, that the querist was surprised, and thought he had better see for himself. He did so, and the result was that he bought $3,000 worth of tools; but our disparaging friend received no commission therefor, and is remembered by the machine makers—to whom the report was given—not as one who loves his fellow-men. Moral.—$300 is too much to pay for the pleasure of slandering manufacturers."

The Engineer: with which is incorporated Steam engineering, Volumes 7-8 1884

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

19th century tech writing quote for the day

I would have every technical writer able to paraphrase himself in the vernacular; I would counsel him frequently to come down from his scaffolding, and place himself on the level of a common-sensed, right-minded man.  
-- Nicholas Patrick Wiseman , The Dublin Review: Volume 71, 1872

empty cities?

A former co-worker posted a link to this discussion about the Amazon vs. California sales tax dispute, which raises some excellent points about how the loss of sales tax revenue has far reaching effects on state and local governments and their services and some equally excellent points about the impact of online commerce on local businesses.  One of the examples the author chose to illustrate the loss of local businesses was his surprise at the the fact that no new business has yet moved in to the location of the old Wordsworth bookstore in Harvard Square after all these years. 

Maybe a bookstore is not the best example because people, myself included, have an emotional attachment to bookstores. However, the example did bring to mind this segment of Studio 360 that I heard awhile back: Do We Still Need Bookstores? In it, Clay Shirky mentioned how now that we can buy everything -- not just books -- online, there will be much less street level commerce.  While I'm all over the idea of retooling bookstores as non-profit cultural institutions, I don't see that working as a model for all street level commerce.  Will cities become places where all we can do is eat in restaurants and drink in bars? Will the arts have a place in these cities?

The same Studio 360 show also had a segment on how the NEA has decided there are too many small theater companies.  This got me imagining cities devoid of arts venues as well as bookstores.  So many cities are trying to refocus themselves either as arts destinations or tourist destinations these days, but is that the answer? There's only so much art that people can buy. There's only so much tourist kitsch that people can buy.

Are we facing a future of empty cities?

Friday, September 2, 2011

don't forget your audience

 ... it is not enough that the subject-matter be clear to the writer, it should be so expressed as to be clear to the particular readers addressed.  

Engineering education: Volume 7 - Page 321
American Society for Engineering Education - 1916

expert technical writer

This marks the difference between the expert technical writer and the amateur. "ACCURACY— TERSENESS— ACCURACY."

From Bulletin of the Technical and Engineering Society: Volumes 4-5 - Page 163
Colorado School of Mines. Technical and Engineering Society - 1908

learning a subject

No man learns so much from the writing of a book as the author himself. It has been well said that if you wish to learn a subject, write a book on it.

Thomas Arthur Rickard — A Guide to Technical Writing — 1910

Thursday, September 1, 2011

analytics vs. the real world part 3: PeerIndex

Next up in the social media analytics analysis is PeerIndex. PeerIndex is supposed to measure social capital using three components: activity, audience and authority. It measures each of these components individually, then creates a composite score. It gives you a ranking based on the composite score. It also provides a diagram of your "topic fingerprint."

I think they've added components since I ran this, but the site is down today so I'll go with what I've got.

Audience measures how people respond to your posts. It's not just how many followers you have but how many people pay attention to what you're saying. Basically this reduces the effect of being followed by spam bots. They also claim it accounts for the relative size of your audience compared to the rest of the community.

Activity measures the amount of relevant content posted about a topic area.  Basically this accounts for the people who stop paying attention to you because you tweet too much or too little about the topic of interest to a given community. This is also a community-relative score. So if you're party of a highly active community around a topic, you'll need a higher level of activity to score higher.

Topic Fingerprint

Authority  measures reliability and trust.  That's basically how much your followers can rely on your recommendations and opinions on a given topic. They calculate authority around eight benchmark topics.  These topics are also shown in the topic fingerprint diagram.

The benchmark topics are (clockwise from top of the diagram):
AME - arts, media and entertainment
TEC - technology and the Internet
SCI - science and the environment
MED - health and medical
LIF - leisure and lifestyle
SPO - sports
POL - news, politics and society
BIZ - finance, business and economics

With all that said, I really don't know what to make of my scores. The biggest surprise to me is my topic footprint. I would have expected more authority in science and environment, given that I tweet about piping plovers and beach ecology a lot of the time.  Technology and business seem about right. I can't remember ever tweeting about politics, so have no idea how I got any footprint in there at all. As for arts, media, and entertainment, unless they count soup as entertainment, that one's a mystery too.

So what does all this tell me about the real world in which I write technical documentation, develop New England day trip travel content, and talk to people about piping plovers?

Certainly in the piping plover sphere, I have way more influence when I'm standing on the beach with the USFWS logo on my hat and shirt and talk to people one on one about how cute piping plovers are and what we're doing to save them and why people should pay attention to laws and regulations. The three-year-olds that I'm telling not to disturb the baby birds are not following my tweets, nor for the most part are their parents. Maybe one or two of the striper fishermen are, for news purposes.

As far as New England day trips, I don't tweet much about what I'm doing with New England Day Trips at Hand. What would I tweet about it that would increase my credibility as a travel writer/content developer/photographer?

As for technical communications, since it's a relative score, much of what I have to say about how to do #techcomm, has already been said a thousand and one times.  Again, much, if not all, of my influence is and has been live and in person in the workplace. Getting the same level of street cred in the social media sphere as I've had in the real world is going to take awhile. Meanwhile, I've got stuff to do, places to be, and people to see.