Friday, 16 March 2012

SXSW #2: L-Shaped Data

So there seems to be a crossover from two of the emerging themes of the first few days. One is the huge importance of personal (or Big) data; and the other is that of local and the value of information and exchanges based around locality.

Not that anyone else is but I'm going to call this crossover, 'L-shaped data'.

That's because I think location will prove to be the biggest disruptor of the next ten years, transforming the very nature of the lives we live, the services we enjoy, the jobs we do and the experiences we enjoy. I predict that 'local' will be a bigger transformational trend than either e-commerce, or social media has been so far and that it is locality that will unlock our willingness as individuals to freely give our data away to invisible sources and intelligent services.

Yesterday Steven Levy (the Wired journalist and author of In The Plex) talked about the idea of Epic Tech Wars and about those of the past and those he predicted for the future. One common to both was the battle between Open and Closed; between Freedom and Control. He took us through the history of Hacktervism from as early as 1959 and it was clear that as more personal data enters the public domain, a battle between Protection ( govt control) and Privacy ( personal freedom) is set to take place.

But there is a third way and that seems to be around setting data free within a local setting. So it's local govt control as well as local community freedoms. In fact those people and institutions that are defining a local code of behaviour are the same people and institutions that are opening up their local data. It's a local quid pro quo.

I came to this realisation during a session entitled Cities in 2032. A company called New Urban Mechanics talked about an app they've developed called 'Street Bump' in which the sensors within the smartphone detect smooth or otherwise driving conditions, record this and upload it to form a picture of where local road repairs are required.

Chris Volinsky of AT&T took us through the results of an experiment they conducted in New Jersey in which they took 6 months worth of data from all the phones in a particular city, anonymised and analysed it and started to identify and then solve city issues around commuter routes into town, or traffic around schools.

And Eric Paulos shared a fascinating point of view on the growth of 'Citizen Scientists' showing how with sensors in phones everyday people could not only input local data but also analyse it themselves to start solving problems in their local area. Imagine if we could tell from aggregated local data whether a particular bus route was the most efficient for most people and as a result of the data we find a better one. People feel engaged, effective and an active part of their community. He quotes Obama "we can't win the future with the government of the past". Right. So once governments cotton on to this availability of local data thing, everything in every local community will change.

And with burgeoning companies that have Local at their heart, like Living Social, an 'L-Shaped' revolution is guaranteed. Their CEO, Tim O'Shaughnessy talked not only about how they want to become the default choice for 'local' but how in order to do so they are expanding from online to offline in order to service local communities. He talked about their truly fascinating plan to launch a physical store/space in Washington DC to help local businesses put on events and host branded experiences. The example being a local sushi restaurant that wants to run a series of sushi classes. They can afford the teacher-chef but can't afford to close for the evening to put on the events. Enter the Living Social space to the rescue.

And finally, Amber Case of took us through a mind-spinning uber-intellectual history of the Cyborg, and ended with the notion that "the next generation of location is ambient". She explained the new technologies and partnerships behind the geoloqi service: a technology that allows our actions in the real world to trigger virtual annotations to pop up that relate to our exact locations. For example one can put a 'geo-fence' around the local bus stop and as you take your bus journey, without having to think, act, press a button or pull down any data, your phone will alert you to get off at the right stop. As she explains: "information flows at you, and the interface disappears; you don't have to search or even ask a question". One of the most useful trial applications of this technology is the geo-fencing of all the local restaurants and the aggregation of all their restaurant reviews to produce "Don't Eat That", warning you not to eat somewhere you might well be about to enter.

So local is where it's at! And after a couple of years of the machismo of BIG Data it feels like small data might triumph. The micro data contributions we make on a daily basis around our local areas are proving to be the most priceless. So I would say watch out for an increase in "L-shaped data", in "L-shaped businesses" and in "L-shaped government initiatives".

As Bing Gordon said on the first day I arrived here, "Local is the extra vector the Internet can bring to bear on us". And everything I'm seeing and hearing would suggest that is very much the case.

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