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Monthly Archives: April, 2013

What is Big Data?

Data

Big Data: what is it?

What is “big data?” Good question. Its name suggests that it describes a large pile of something, collected and organized by a company: numbers, autocorrect mistakes, search queries, anything

More practically, Big Data is often the tagline for aggregative software services that do things like predict fluctuations in airline ticket prices, or track video-viewing habits on Netflix. It collects and stores all of this data for retrieval later, and then uses it to try and predict outcomes. Accordingly, phenomena like House of Cards (based on painstaking research of Netflix habits), the 2008 Wall Street meltdown, and the installation of (mostly unmonitored) video cameras in seemingly last corner of Chicago are good examples of Big Data at work. What’s so great about any of that? To be fair, Google and especially Facebook can be regarded as leading Big Data collectors, too, but in both cases, the benefits they’ve provided are often matched by the privacy infringements, security concerns, and general Internet fatigue that both of those “free” services can cause.

The next time that some TED speaker, Amazon-bestselling author, or columnist tells that we are living in a uniquely disruptive and transformative era and that (this time, anyway) Big Data is the reason why, your should be skeptical. Big Data, as understood in the tech media, is basically a way to collect data, infringe privacy, and, in return, provide services (often “free” – be wary of anything that’s “free,” because it usually has a hidden price in the data it collects).  Its Bigness is a byproduct of higher network speeds and cheaper, easier cloud storage. Other than size, its data collection targets (what we do, watch, buy, sell, etc) are old-hat, nothing that would shock even the the Attic Greeks, who kept their own meticulous manual measurements (Small Data?) of diet and exercise regimens. There’s nothing new out there.

But Big Data is a Big Deal because it has no drawbacks for the parties that promote it. As Anthony Nyström pointed out recently, the idea of Big Data is so nebulous that even if it fails to deliver, then the speakers and evangelists who have sold tons of books and speeches on its account can simply say that the “data is bad” or that it’s your problem. This is what happens when people are allowed to get away with generalities and not pressed to be more concrete in their assertions. But it also highlights how flimsy the notion of “data” is, anyway. “Data-driven” and “the data” are terms that have become almost sacrosanct in the United States in particular. Elon Musk’s recent spat with the NYT over its “fake” review of the Tesla S is a good case in point. The reviewer-driver, Musk asserted, was simply lying when he said that the car had an unreliable battery that couldn’t hold charge in cold weather, and “the data” that Musk’s company had collected from the car would shatter the reviewer’s soft nonsense. No such thing happened. If anything, Musk’s torrent of data only inflamed the he-said/he-said debate.

Look: data is not some god or force of nature. It’s manmade, and handled by humans who have to then make sense of it. If you have a bad analyst, or too much data, then the entire operation can be compromised. Would Apple have been better off collecting more data about tablets before it made the iPad, rather than simply following Steve Jobs’ gut assertion that users needed to be guided in what they wanted? It’s debatable whether more data even leads to better decisions. And even in cases where the amount of data isn’t an issue, its quality can become one, too, even if it seems like good data on the surface. Data about lower crime rates in certain neighborhoods could lead one to think that crime wasn’t an issue there, despite having the obvious blindspot that many crimes go unreported and as such are not part of “the data.”

But that can be fixed, you might say – we just need better surveillance and better tools to give us better data. More technological progress (I disagree with the entire notion of “progress,” but I’ll let that slide for another time) you might say. OK: but at what cost? The same sort of nonsensical, overexcited language that drives a lot of the press about Big Data also drives the posts of many tech bloggers who advocate for rollbacks on privacy or any notion of any unconnected world. Jeff Jarvis thinks you shouldn’t be worried about losing your privacy, since publicness makes our lives better. Nick Bilton just can’t stand it that electronic devices can’t be used during airplane takeoff, as if those few moments of not being able to refresh Gmail or Facebook were critical to the betterment of humanity.

In these cases, as with the debate about Big Data and all of its privacy entanglements, it’s not so much the content of the assertion as it is the attitude with which it is made. It rings of “I know best” and has little regard for niceties like privacy and offline existence in particular. Don’t want to be part of “the data” made by Big Data and its tools? Too bad, that aforementioned attitude would say. What’s worse, the price of this “progress” toward more data and bigger data is often hidden because so many of Big Data’s tools are “free.” To be fair, paid services like Netflix are also part of the overall Big Data dredge. But general consumer awareness of how and why their data is being collected, whether by a free or paid service, appears to be low, and that’s too bad.

Slate has already worried that Big Data could be the end of creativity. I disagree, but I’m glad to see at least some pushback on the Big Data train – it isn’t clear that Big Data, despite all of its pretenses, is giving, or can give, us what we really want or need. Big Data, I think, assumes a certain linearity in how humans operate – that we show a machine, by way of what we click or like or +1, what we truly want, and that that input can be transformed into a high-quality output, like a certain type of content. I admit to making some data-based posts myself, but if I were to make this entire blog a slave to the data it collects, it would probably look like a super-geeky version of BuzzFeed, which, while fun for a while, would preclude some of the longer or more detailed posts that provide variety and often are surprise hits (at least from my modest perspective). So I’m sticking with just a modest, consciously restrained dose of data for now, something I think that those aforementioned Greeks would approve of.

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5 Reasons to Be Skeptical of Facebook Home

FB Android

Facebook Home (for Android)

Facebook has its own phone now. It’s a midrange HTC phone called the HTC First, which can be bought for $99 on a 2-year AT&T contract in the U.S. (EE and Orange are supported in Europe). It runs a lightly customized version of Android (not even a fork) called Facebook Home. For a few other compatible non-First phones, Facebook Home can be downloaded as an app from the Google Play Store. Facebook Home provides deeper social notifications, such as full-screen (ad-choked) notifications on your lock screen and home screen, and these notifications come from people rather than from apps, apparently.

As with most things Facebook-related, I regard this as a ton of hype from a company that is essentially a one hit wonder. Here’s why I remain skeptical of Facebook Home.

1. “People First” is a Losing Strategy

Facebook Home is, to use the company’s own language, all about people and not apps. If that sounds familiar, it should. Microsoft has been using the same language to talk about WIndows Phone for some time now. What’s worse, this tagline doesn’t even make sense: are the apps you use on Android or iOS somehow not about “people”? The portrait of the stock iOS/Android user that one gets from FB and MS is of someone who indulges lots of discrete, antisocial apps like PDF readers, music players, podcasting clients, and note-takers, and that somehow this must be stopped by putting “people” back at the forefront.

But this portrait is bullshit. It ignores every trend that’s happened on iOS and Android over the past five years. Just look at iOS alone. For an OS that’s not about “people,” it was the perfect proving ground for Instagram (an app so popular that FB had to desperately buy it for ~$1B), Flipboard, Albumatic, and Vine. Cross-platform (read: iOS + Android above others) apps like Snapchat, WhatsApp, and other SMS-replacements have also sprung up without any need to embrace the FB/MS “people first” ethos. As Michael Gartenberg has noted, resorting to this type of language indicates that one is actually very much involved in a heated battle over apps. It’s always about apps, in other words, and the only people who talk about “people” instead are the ones who are losing the app race. If people were all that mattered, a simple dumbphone with a contacts list would be enough.

2. Facebook Still Doesn’t Get Mobile

FB has the same problem as MS, namely that it wasn’t born mobile (to use Qualcomm’s icky catchphrase) and is having to adjust accordingly. The “app” concept – that high-quality, mostly self-contained programs that do a narrow range of things well – was so revolutionary because it finally addressed the silent majority of users who never multitask and just want their software to do well-defined tasks in relative isolation from each other, while preserving OS stability and device battery life. This is why iOS is so successful and appealing to multiple demographics. From the demos at today’s presentation, Facebook Home has all of the charm of a PC-era trojan that hijacks your device. Facebook is already a huge battery drainer on Android, and now that it has deeper access to your device, as well as the ability to run ads in your cover feed, it’s going to do everything it can to erase the optimized experience that iOS and top-tier Android have been working toward for years. Of course, many people won’t care.

3. It’s Confusing

Most people don’t know what a launcher is. This won’t be a problem for users who buy the HTC First, but for people who download the Home app (odd how a service “not about apps” is itself an app only salable via Google’s Play Store), it’ll be interesting to see how well an app that takes over your entire Android experience fares. Custom launchers (Nova, Apex, Go) are usually the province of power users who know Android in and out, but for the casual FB user, it’ll likely be hard to get back to the stock Android launcher once they go through with the Home setup. This specter of a potentially broken, overly complicated software experience relates back to point #2.

4. Who Will Buy The Hardware?

The HTC First is $99 with a 2-year contract with AT&T. For the same price, you could get a Galaxy S3 on any of the four major American carriers, or an iPhone 4S with Facebook integration into iOS, ad-free. Which would you choose? Granted, I have a low opinion of the savvy of many Facebook users and as such may underestimate how many of them may want to walk into AT&T and buy “the Facebook phone.”

5. Facebook is an iPhone-centric Company

Zuckerberg himself uses an iPhone, and the rest of the company seems to have given much more mindshare to the simple iOS experience, without going out its way to exploit the peculiarities of Android (widgets, larger screen sizes, etc.)

-The ScreenGrab Team