USAFacts Centralizes Access to Data on Government Spending

May 12, 2017

Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s recent project was inspired by his wife, Connie, who wished him to practice more philanthropy. Wouldn’t it help to know what our government is already doing  with its (our) money, he wondered? Out of this question has sprung USAFacts, a website that serves up “federal, state, and local data from over 70 government sources.” I appreciate the presentation, which ties data to four specific directives embedded in the Preamble to our Constitution. For example, the heading Establish Justice and Ensure Domestic Tranquility leads to stats on Crime and Disaster, Safeguarding Consumers and Employees, and Child Safety and Social Services. Tying such information to our founding document will prompt many to consider these data points in a more thoughtful way.

The site’s About page describes its team’s approach and methodology. The effort has not been easy; we’re told:

With his business background, Steve searched for solid, reliable, impartial numbers to tell the story… but eventually realized he wasn’t going to find them. He put together a small team of people – economists, writers, researchers – and got to work.

We soon discovered that dealing with something as big and complex as government – with its more than 90,000 jurisdictions and 23 million employees – required an organizing framework. What better place to look than the Constitution, and, more specifically, the preamble to the Constitution? … While we don’t make judgments about policy, we all agree on the broad purposes of government as laid out in the preamble to the Constitution.

Still, in beta, USA Facts is partnering with academic institutions like the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, the Penn Wharton Budget Model, and Lynchburg College. They are working to document their process and controls, and plan to have their methods reviewed by a “prominent” accounting firm for accuracy. We look forward to watching this project grow.

Cynthia Murrell, May 12, 2017

Swiftype Launches SaaS Enterprise Search Platform

May 10, 2017

While AI is a hot commodity, enterprise search has been more of a disappointment. That is why we are surprised by one company’s confidence in the search market—KMWorld shares, “Swiftype Launches AI-Powered Content Discovery Engine for Enterprise Users.” This integration of AI into enterprise search is the firm’s first (formal) venture into cloud services. Writer Joyce Wells tells us:

With a single search, the company says, a user can locate information across accounts in Salesforce, files on Dropbox, documents in Google G Suite or Office 365, information from internal databases, and conversation threads on Gmail. Swiftype also integrates directly into apps such as Salesforce and Confluence to allow users to search and find content across all of these services without disturbing their existing workflows.

According to the vendor, the platform provides Swiftype AI-powered search applications built natively for mobile, desktop, and web browsers, as well as additional workflow integrations that allow users to search all their data from the applications they already use. There is also a Connector Framework to help quickly connect cloud-based platforms.

So far, Swiftype has integrated the platforms of Google, Microsoft, Salesforce, Atlassian, and Zendesk into their product. We also learn the company’s AI platform, dubbed Enterprise Knowledge Graph, will take into account calendar events, email content, and user behavior as crafts analyses. Launched in 2012, the Swiftype is based in San Francisco.

Cynthia Murrell, May 10, 2017

US Still Most Profitable for Alphabet

May 8, 2017

Alphabet, Inc., the parent company of Google generates maximum revenue from the US market. Europe Middle East and Africa combined come at second and Asia Pacific occupying the third slot.

Recode in its earnings report titled Here’s Where Alphabet Makes Its Money says:

U.S. revenue increased 25 percent from last year to $11.8 billion. Sales from the Asia-Pacific region rose 29 percent to $3.6 billion. Revenue from Europe, the Middle East, and Africa was up 13 percent to $8.1 billion.

Despite the fact that around 61% of world population is in Asia Pacific region, Google garnering most of the revenues from a mere 322 million people is surprising. It can be attributed to the fact that China, which forms the bulk of Asia’s population does not have access to Google or its services. India, another emerging market though is open, is yet to embrace digital economy fully.

While chances of Chinese market opening up for Google are slim, India seems to be high on the radar of not only Google but also for other tech majors like Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook.

Vishol Ingole, May 8, 2017

Microsoft Offers Android Users a (Weak) Bing Incentive

May 4, 2017

It looks like Microsoft has stooped to buying traffic for Bing; that cannot bode well.  OnMSFT reports, “Set Bing as Your Search Engine on iPhone or Android, Get a Microsoft Rewards $5 Gift Card.”  Paradoxically, they don’t seem terribly anxious to spread the word. Reporter Kareem Anderson writes:

Sleuthers over in the Reddit forums have dug up a neat little nugget of savings for iPhone and Android users. According to a thread at the Xbox One subreddit, iPhone and Android users who set their default search engine to Bing can receive a Microsoft Rewards $5 gift card. The details were originally pulled from a Microsoft site instructing users on how to make the change from Google to Bing on smartphone devices. We should note that the redemption process hasn’t been without its issues as several Android users have mentioned that it has not worked or appears delayed in confirming the release of gift cards.

So, they’ve created an incentive, but are not promoting it or, apparently, fulfilling it effectively—talk about mixed messages! Still, if you use an Android device and are inclined toward Bing, but haven’t yet set it as your default browser, you may be able to profit a little by doing so.  Anderson shares a link to the Microsoft Rewards page for our convenience.

Cynthia Murrell, May 4, 2017

Cortana Becomes an MD

April 17, 2017

Smartphone assistants like Microsoft’s Cortana are only good for verbal Internet searches.  They can be made smarter with an infusion of machine learning and big data.  According to Neowin, Microsoft is adding NLP and AI to Cortana and sending it to medical school, “The UK’s Health Services Now Relies On Cortana Intelligence Suite To Read Medical Research.”

Microsoft takes a lot of flak for their technology, but they do offer comprehensive solutions that do amazing things…when they work.  The UK Health Services will love and hate their new Cortana Intelligence Suite.  It will be utilized to read and catalog medical research to alert medical professionals to new trends in medicine:

Researching and reading can consume medical professionals’ times, stealing a valuable resource from patients.

That’s why the UK’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) is now relying on Microsoft’s Cortana Intelligence Suite for sifting through medical data. NICE uses machine-learning algorithms to look at published medical research, categorize it, and feed it to volunteer citizen scientists which then re-categorizes and processes it. This leaves researchers time to go through the final data, interpret and understand it, without having to waste time on the way. It also forms a virtuous cycle, whereby the citizen scientists feed the computer algorithm data and improve it, and the computer algorithm feeds the volunteers better data, speeding up their work.

Medical professionals need to be aware of current trends and how medical research is progressing, but the shear amount of papers and information available is an impossible feat to control.  Cortana can smartly parry down the data and transform it into digestible, useful material.

Whitney Grace, April 17, 2017

Motivations for Microsoft LinkedIn Purchase

April 13, 2017

We thought the purchase was related to Microsoft’s in-context, real-time search within an Office application. However, according to BackChannel’s article, “Now We Know Why Microsoft Bought LinkedIn,” it’s all about boosting the company’s reputation. Writer Jessi Hempel takes us back to 2014, when CEO Satya Nadella was elevated to his current position. She reminds of the fiscal trouble Microsoft was having at the time, then continues:

It also had a lousy reputation, particularly in Silicon Valley, where camaraderie and collaboration are hallmarks of tech’s evolution and every major player enjoys frenemy status with its adversaries. Microsoft wasn’t a company that partnered with outsiders. It scorned the open-source community and looked down its nose at tech upstarts. In a public conversation with Marc Andreessen in October 2014, investor Peter Thiel called Microsoft a bet ‘against technological innovation.’

The write-up goes on to detail ways Nadella has turned the company around financially. According to Hempel, the LinkedIn purchase, and the installation of its founder Reid Hoffman on the board, are in an effort to boost Microsoft’s reputation. Hembel observes:

As a board member, Hoffman will be Microsoft’s ambassador in the Valley. Among a core group of constituents for whom Microsoft may not factor into conversation, Hoffman will work to raise its profile. The trickle-down effect has the potential to be tremendous as Microsoft competes for partners and talent.

See the article for more information on the relationship between the Nietzsche-quoting Nadella and the charismatic tech genius Hoffman, as well as changes Microsoft has been making to boost both its reputation and its bottom line.

Cynthia Murrell, April 13, 2017

Battle in the Clouds

April 10, 2017

The giants of the tech world are battling fiercely to dominate the Cloud services industry. Amazon, however is still at the pole position being the first entrant, followed by Microsoft, Google and IBM.

The Street in an in-depth report titled How Amazon, Microsoft, Google and IBM Battle for Dominance in the Cloud says:

Amazon Web Services, or AWS, is the indisputable leader, with a breadth of services and clients ranging from blue chips such as Coca Cola (KO) and General Electric (GE) to app-economy stalwarts like Netflix (NFLX), Tinder and Lyft. Microsoft and Google are closing the features gap, even if they are far behind on market share.

So far, these technology giants are fighting it out in cornering the IaaS market. Amazon with AWS clearly dominates this space. Microsoft, because of its inherent advantage of B2B software already running across major corporations has it easy, but not easy enough to topple Amazon. Google and IBM are vying for the remaining market share.

Apart from IaaS, PaaS is going to be the next frontier on which the Cloud battles will be fought, the report states. Consolidation is a distant possibility considering the fact that the warriors involved are too big to be acquired. With most services at par, innovation will be the key to gain and sustain in this business.

Vishal Ingole, April 10, 2017

Seventeen Visions of the Future From Microsoft Researchers

March 31, 2017

Here’s a bit of PR from Microsoft that could pay off in many ways, should the company be wise enough to listen to these women. Microsoft’s blog posts, “17 for ’17: Microsoft Researchers on What to Expect in 2017 and in 2027.” As part of their Computer Science Education Week, the company shares 17 well-informed perspectives on the future of tech, presented by 17 talented researchers. On the way to introducing these insights, the post reminds us:

In this ‘age of acceleration,’ in which advances in technology and the globalization of business are transforming entire industries and society itself, it’s more critical than ever for everyone to be digitally literate, especially our kids. This is particularly true for women and girls who, while representing roughly 50 percent of the world’s population, account for less than 20 percent of computer science graduates in 34 OECD countries, according to this report. This has far-reaching societal and economic consequences.

Consequences like a worldwide shortage of qualified computer scientists, which could be eased by a surge of women entering the field. That’s why they call personnel management ”human resources,” after all.

We are pleased to see one particular researcher on the list, Sue Dumais, who happens to be an alum of the historic Bell Labs. Dumais now works as deputy managing director at Microsoft’s Redmond, Washington, lab. Her view for 2017 makes perfect sense—more progress in, and reliance upon, deep learning models. Among other things, she expects these models to continue improving internet search results. What about further down the road? Here’s Dumais’ vision:

What will be the key advance or topic of discussion in search and information retrieval in 2027?

The search box will disappear. It will be replaced by search functionality that is more ubiquitous, embedded and contextually sensitive. We are seeing the beginnings of this transformation with spoken queries, especially in mobile and smart home settings.  This trend will accelerate with the ability to issue queries consisting of sound, images, or video, and with the use of context to proactively retrieve information related to the current location, content, entities, or activities without explicit queries.

The post urges readers to share this list, in the hope that it will inspire talented kids of all genders to pursue careers in computer science.

Cynthia Murrell, March 31, 2017

Whither the Tech Industry Under Trump Administration?

March 30, 2017

The Silicon-Valley-based tech industry has done quite well under the Obama administration, we’re reminded in the Hill’s article, “Tech’s Power Shifts as Obama fades to Trump.” Lobbying efforts by internet companies have escalated over the past eight years, catching up to the traditional telecommunications industry. Writers Ali Breland and David McCabe quote a mysterious source:

‘Everybody is amazed by Google’s sort of cozy relationship with the White House,’ said one communications industry insider who asked to remain anonymous. ‘They don’t even try to hide it.’

Ah, dear Google. What now?

The writers cite Noah Theran, of the Internet Association—a group that represents Google, Twitter, and Amazon—as they emphasize the importance of working closely with government. If policy makers don’t understand what is happening in the tech industry, it will be nigh impossible for them to regulate it sensibly.

To complicate matters, apparently, these upstart internet companies have ruffled the feathers of the old-school telecoms, who seem to believe the FCC and Obama administration unfairly favored their new rivals, Google in particular. The article continues:

The tension wasn’t always present. Silicon Valley at one point had famously dismissed Washington, D.C., assessing that it could be the new capital of change in the U.S. That attitude shifted as the tech industry saw a greater need to work with Washington. A touchstone was the Justice Department antitrust suit against Microsoft. After having to appeal an initial order to break into two separate business, Microsoft quickly learned that it needed to have a Washington, D.C. presence if it wanted to preemptively ease regulatory problems later on. …

Trump’s presidency may change how the battles play out for the next four to eight years, however. Trump has had a rockier relationship with some tech companies, including Apple. He at one point during the campaign suggested a boycott of the company’s products over its encrypted phone.

Hoo boy. Hang on to your hats, technology-supporters; this could be a bumpy ride.

Cynthia Murrell, March 30, 2017

Software Bias Is Being Addressed

February 27, 2017

Researchers are working to fix the problem of bias in software, we learn from the article, “He’s Brilliant, She’s Lovely: Teaching Computers to Be Less Sexist” at NPR’s blog, All Tech Considered. Writer Byrd Pinkerton begins by noting that this issue of software reflecting human biases is well-documented, citing this article from his colleague. He then informs us that Microsoft, for one, is doing something about it:

Adam Kalai thinks we should start with the bits of code that teach computers how to process language. He’s a researcher for Microsoft and his latest project — a joint effort with Boston University — has focused on something called a word embedding. ‘It’s kind of like a dictionary for a computer,’ he explains. Essentially, word embeddings are algorithms that translate the relationships between words into numbers so that a computer can work with them. You can grab a word embedding ‘dictionary’ that someone else has built and plug it into some bigger program that you are writing. …

Kalai and his colleagues have found a way to weed these biases out of word embedding algorithms. In a recent paper, they’ve shown that if you tell the algorithms to ignore certain relationships, they can extrapolate outwards.

And voila, a careful developer can teach an algorithm to fix its own bias. If only the process were so straightforward for humans. See the article for more about the technique.

Ultimately, though, the problem lies less with the biased algorithms themselves and more with the humans who seek to use them in decision-making. Researcher Kalai points to the marketing of health-related products as a project for which a company might actually want to differentiate between males and females. Pinkerton concludes:

For Kalai, the problem is not that people sometimes use word embedding algorithms that differentiate between gender or race, or even algorithms that reflect human bias. The problem is that people are using the algorithms as a black box piece of code, plugging them in to larger programs without considering the biases they contain, and without making careful decisions about whether or not they should be there.

So, though discoveries about biased software are concerning, it is good to know the issue is being addressed. We shall see how fast the effort progresses.

Cynthia Murrell, February 27, 2017

 

 

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