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05.30.12 - Understanding a Digitized Life

Carey: "The interesting thing about big data is that it's not
just for computer science Ph.D.s; everybody is interested."


David Jankowski, intellectual property attorney and partner at event sponsor Knobbe, Martens, Olson and Bear, opened Calit2’s 15th Igniting Technology presentation last week by laying down the law.

First, Moore’s Law: the number of transistors that can be placed inexpensively on an integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years. Then there’s Nielsen’s Law, which predicts network connection speeds will increase 50 percent per year, or double every 24 months. And finally, he shared Metcalfe’s Law, which states that the value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of members in the network.
That introduction set the stage for "Digitized: Life Transformed" and explained, at least in part, the ongoing digital revolution that is changing daily life. “Digital technology has been exploding over the last several decades and that has implications for everything,” Jankowski said.

Unfortunately, however, the U.S. Patent Office isn’t keeping pace. “Believe me, [it’s] not doubling its productivity every 12 months,” he said. In addition, there has been an increase in patent infringement lawsuits, which are being decided by judges and juries that don’t have high levels of technical expertise, so entrepreneurs must safeguard themselves. “When it comes to the digital technology space, you need to think about how you’re going to protect your own rights, given the limitations and challenges of the legal system,” he warned the audience. Jankowski then introduced the evening’s five presenters, each of whom highlighted a different aspect of the ongoing revolution.

Michael Carey’s expertise is cloud computing and big data. Cloud computing, he told the audience, was given this rather wordy definition by the National Institute of Standards and Technology: a model for enabling ubiquitous, convenient, on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources that can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimal management effort of service-provider interaction. Put more simply, “It’s all about this shared thing that is out there somewhere but if you need it you can get at it fast,” he said.

Advantages of the cloud include anywhere access to files from a range of devices; on-demand, usually free storage and computing; and enterprise-class service for individuals and small businesses. Disadvantages include questions about data availability if the company folds, as well as trust and privacy issues.

Presenters (from left) Mainwaring, Ito, Maurer and Goyal addressed digital user interactions, educational access,
mobile money and healthcare apps, respectively.

The amount of data generated daily almost defies description. Facebook has 845 million active users and processes 8 billion messages a day. Twitter, with its 140 million active users, processes 340 million tweets a day. “The interesting thing about big data,” said Carey, “is that it’s not just for computer science Ph.Ds; everybody is interested.” This attractiveness is a result of its enormous untapped potential to serve as fodder for analysis, optimization and competition.

Big data not only talks, it tells lots of stories. Past purchases can indicate future purchases; friends and contacts can suggest would-be friends and contacts; businesses can learn what their customers like and dislike. Blogs, tweets and Facebook posts give insight into world events, and data from the past can lead to more effective problem-solving in the future.
All that data must be analyzed in order to have value, and Carey shared a couple of data-intensive computing platforms used for analysis, including one he and his UCI colleagues are developing. Their platform, called Asterix, is funded by a $2.7 million NSF grant. “We’re trying to build a big, scalable big-data management system to address some of the problems we see coming,” he said, including spatial, textual and parallel data challenges.

Scott Mainwaring, senior researcher for the Interaction and Experience Research Group at Intel Labs, works to connect technology to people. His multidisciplinary approach spans engineering, design, marketing, anthropology, usability and measurement analysis. “We’re trying to break out of the silos that are put around these disciplines,” he said, which “hamper our ability to understand the complexities of social computing, cloud computing … and our ability to unleash the potential that’s there.”

Bridges over the chasm between technology and people are evolving. Human-computer interaction, the state-of-the-art approach in the 1980s, created fixed systems, never imagining the concept of people carrying their computers with them all day. Human-computer interaction theory gave rise to digital cameras, which are actually “sophisticated computers that ordinary people can do amazing things with.”

That approach led to experience-centered computing, in which usability experts, interaction designers, cultural anthropologists and consumer experts interacted to create “delightful experiences,” which could be sold to consumers, said Mainwaring, citing Instagram as a model. “It’s immediate, positive feedback,” he said. “Where else in your life do you get that?

A third paradigm is emerging: social computing or entangled systems, a way of looking at the world as an intertwined arrangement of people and technologies. “This [is a] state … where the social facts are constraining and enabling what technologies are possible, and technological facts, in turn, constrain what people can do and how they think about technology,” he said.

Panelists participated in a question-and-answer session with the audience; after the presentation, visitors
experimented with an interactive display wall in the Visualization Lab.

An example, he told the audience, is a YouTube-based tribute site to Johnny Cash on which Cash’s fans worked together to create his last music video. “It’s this mesmerizing group production of hundreds of people. And it’s as much a technical as a social, legal and IP accomplishment,” he added.

Next on the horizon, Mainwaring predicted, are tools born from new collaborations between social sciences, humanities and technology communities. “I think that is where the next big thing is going to come from – the unusual, unexpected combinations that happen when a social theorist talks to an engineer in a place where that conversation can happen productively.”

Social anthropologist Mimi Ito, research director for the University of California’s Digital Media and Learning Hub, studies opportunities and risks inherent in young people’s use of digital media. Her research indicates, “not surprisingly,” she said, that teens who are highly engaged with new media technologies are learning social skills, technical skills and forms of creative expression that will benefit them as adults.
But she also learned that only a small percentage of these engaged learners are able to connect their new-found skills to academia, or to social or political engagement. “There was a persistent gap – a generational gap and a gap in engagement,” she said. The skills young people learn online aren’t always valued by their parents and teachers, and the teens themselves often have difficulty connecting those abilities to formal educational learning.

Also in the Visualization Lab, guests viewed new animation
software on Hiperwall.

Ito shared an example of one teen who understood the connection. The 17-year-old, who liked to write fantasy fiction, aspired to be a screenwriter. She was introduced by friends to an online role-playing board where people interactively write fiction together. 

“Suddenly, she had this whole social network and community of peers who shared the same set of interests and had a lot of knowledge and expertise; and they were committed to very high standards of writing, high engagement and giving feedback on each other’s work,” Ito said.

The teen submitted a 100-page screenplay derived from her online work as a school assignment; she also used her online creations in her college applications and was accepted to several highly competitive schools.

“The reality now is there is a ton of opportunity, there’s lower barriers to access because of new technology, but most young people aren’t taking advantage of it,” Ito said.

She is working with the MacArthur Foundation to try to change that. A 5,500-square-foot space in a Chicago public library serves as a template. The YouMedia Learning Lab, whose design was based on Ito’s research, is dedicated to digital and creative arts. Teens can drop in, hang out with their friends and use a wide range of technology in whatever ways they choose. Adult mentors are available for guidance, as are librarians who support this learning-centered approach.

The MacArthur Foundation and the Institute of Museum and Library Services are supporting the development of 10 similar spaces per year for the next three years in locations around the country. “It’s really exciting to see some of these models start to take hold,” said Ito, who is enlisting the help of educators, technology-makers, parents and young people – “kindred spirits who are engaged in these types of social, interest-driven and technologically connected forms of learning.”

Anthropologist Bill Maurer is following the money – mobile money, that is. In the developing world, these transactions rely not on sophisticated smart phones but rather, on “dumb” simple-feature mobile phones, a technology that approximately 80 percent of the world’s population has access to.

Because the majority of residents in small villages in the developing world keep their valuable, including money, in a hole in their yards, these mobile-enabled financial transactions allow them to send payments easily to friends and family in neighboring villages. A service called M-PESA, which debuted in 2007, is now used by half of all Kenyans, Maurer said, and handles about 35 percent more traffic than Western Union worldwide.

The system relies on SMS (text messaging) capability. Citizens send and receive text messages specifying payment details; transactions are completed at the same locations and from the same vendors where they purchase cellular air time.

Maurer, who heads UCI’s Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion, studies these mobile-money services. “Often these things get started for one purpose and then people discover other things they can do with them,” he said.

M-PESA and other mobile-money services took an existing behavior and layered another service on top of it. “Everybody [there] already sends texts all the time … if I can text you, now I can also send you money,” he said. “It’s quite brilliant.”

These services haven’t taken hold in the U.S. because we already have a myriad of “legacy systems,” including credit cards, debit networks, prepaid services, banks, credit unions, payday lenders, etc. “In a context where you don’t have these infrastructures, when something like mobile comes in and can be tapped as a new payment infrastructure, it takes off,” Maurer said.

Next on the horizon, he believes, is “platformization” – applications built on top of M-PESA for bill payment, insurance premiums and even for point-of-sale payments.

Underneath those systems, though, may lie something a little less transparent. “If I’m a mobile money service provider, maybe I don’t want your money, maybe what I want is your data,” Maurer told the audience. “All that data present in the transaction – who you are, what you are buying, who you are buying it from, how much you’re willing to pay – if we see people start to mine that we might see some innovation in the mobile money payment space.”

Venture capitalist Maneesh Goyal’s technology interest is personalized health and fitness applications to decrease the burgeoning U.S. healthcare liability. According to Goyal, healthcare gobbles up 20 percent of our gross domestic product and will consume 40 percent within 10 years. “And that is not sustainable,” he said.

Compounding the problem: an aging baby-boomer population, which will devour healthcare resources in retirement, and an epidemic level of obesity across all populations. “Services cannot solve these problems,” Goyal said. “The only way we can solve this is through technology.”
The key to success is engaging consumers in their own well-being. The use of technology “can reduce the cost to the system and help get ahead of the problem before it surfaces.”

Apps can enhance communication and health information, facilitate telemedicine and disease management, track fitness and behavioral changes, and lead to better decision-making.
“We see the patient as sitting in the middle of a perfect storm between social, mobile and cloud computing,” he said. “There are opportunities to disrupt healthcare in many ways.”
The winners will be apps that use sensors to collect data (passive data collection) as well as mechanisms for analyzing the resulting petabytes of clinical data. Goyal said insurance companies have not completely bought into application-based systems “so I think that’s an opportunity.”

Challenges include rising above the fray of the current 13,000+ health-related apps (on the iOS platform alone), and overcoming issues of privacy and consumer fear. Additionally, said Goyal, people must change the way they view their health. “We want to live our lives; we don’t want a computer or a physician to tell us how to do it. Tha [attitude] is changing but I think it still has a ways to go.”

Regardless, opportunities abound. “Bottom line: nobody owns the market right now,” Goyal said. “It’s still a wide-open game.”

A question-and-answer session followed the presentations, after which attendees partook of a buffet dinner, networked, and visited lab demonstrations and vendor tables.

--  Anna Lynn Spitzer

Digitized: Life Transformed (all presentations as recorded)

Individual presentations (slides only, PDF)
David Jankowski
Michael Carey
Scott Mainwaring
Mimi Ito
Bill Maurer
Maneesh Goyal