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5 posts from July 2015

29 July 2015

Bionic Animals

by Mark Spain Senior Associate

I was reading around recently and came across an article about a turtle. I don’t particularly like turtles, they’re alright, but what really stood out in this story about a turtle was the fact that technology had been used to save its life. Swimming in the sea off Turkey’s coast, this endangered loggerhead turtle was struck by a boat propeller and in the accident lost part of its jaw, making it unable to eat.

Luckily however, a team of doctors and researchers were able to save the turtle – and with help from a Turkish biotechnology company called BTech, they gave it a new jaw. The new jaw was custom built to fit the turtle and was made from titanium, but possibly the most impressive part of this rescue story was that a 3D printer was used to make the lifesaving jaw.

The jaw was made using the animals Computed Tomography (CT) scans, which allowed the team to create three-dimensional models of the turtle’s upper and lower jaws that would not impede on its movement or eating ability. A team of surgeons then installed the new beak, creating a cool-looking bionic animal.

This isn’t the first animal to be saved by new 3D printing technology. In fact, prosthetic limbs for animals are becoming more common due to the simplicity and low expense of the work. Another example of such a life changing operation on an animal is a dog, born with deformed front legs, which had spent most of its life strapped to wheels to allow it to move. The dog is now equipped with prosthetic 3D printed front legs, specifically designed with the correct curvature so the dog can run around and play, without getting stuck in the mud.

There’s also a story of a duck, born with a backwards left foot and unable to walk. After the leg was amputated the duck’s carer wanted to help the duck walk and swim again so a new silicone foot was developed.

The examples we’ve seen of the animals whose lives have been changed, or saved, by this technology is amazing. The advances made in animal prosthetics, with help from 3D printing technology, have allowed fast and effective solutions to serious problems. Plus, it makes really cool bionic animals.

What are your thoughts on using technology to save a life? Is it the right thing to do, or is it wrong to mess with the natural world in a way such as this?

If you would like to discuss these issues, or the impact of emerging technology on your industry, then please get in touch with Euan Cameron.

by Mark Spain Senior Associate

22 July 2015


If there’s one thing that all Business Intelligence vendors should hang their heads in shame about, it’s the inclusion of gauges in their products.

The use of gauges probably derives from the association with the word “dashboard”: car dashboards have gauges, so Management Information (MI) dashboards should probably have them too. But MI dashboards are so named because they share one particular characteristic with car dashboards – a very small amount of the most important information is served up in a place that requires one glance.

Gauges are very useful in cars – when you drive, you spend hours at the wheel, a good proportion of which you spend glancing down at the speedo and rev-counter (or fuel gauge, if you’re a grown-up). Because of the amount of time you spend looking at the speedo, the position of the needle will give you a good indication of the speed you’re doing. But, until very recently, the dashboard in a car has been a mechanical solution to the problem of displaying data.

This isn’t so true of MI dashboards – as much as it will disappoint budding dashboard authors, users will not spend a good proportion of their time looking at an MI dashboard. They’ll probably have a quick look to see the position in the morning, but that will be it. Additionally, you aren’t limited by the constraints of building a mechanical device (unless your business user is a committed steampunk). So, is a gauge any use?

The key with a dashboard is to convey as much data as possible, using as little processing power of your reader’s brain as possible. This means maximising the amount of data vs non-data ink/pixels used. Or, reducing the amount of non-data ink as much as you can. Let’s analyse the standard QlikView gauge, and see if that complies.


This gauge looks like a speedo and shows that we’re doing ok against our target. So how much of this gauge is actually data? Of the 41,000 non-white pixels, only 13,500 are being used to convey data. So only 33% of the brain’s processing is being used on something useful. The other 66% of the gauge is wasted ink. How can we improve this?

QlikView allows us to strip away a lot of the non-data pixels from the gauge, leaving us with this:


Which gives us with a good concentration of data vs non-data pixels. But, is there a simpler way? Is this the quickest way of getting the data into your reader’s consciousness? Remember we aren’t limited by having to build an actual physical version of this, so all the restrictions that applied to the designers of the speedometer don’t exist when designing an MI dashboard. If you think about what we’re trying to convey with the gauge, in very simplistic terms, it’s just one number. And, there is an incredibly efficient way of conveying a single number that will be processed nearly instantly by the human brain. This method is called “the number”:


Every single pixel is telling you the exact value that is being shown to you, and there are a lot less pixels for the brain to process. Which brings us to another point about the gauge – it doesn’t show you what the value is, unless you write the value on the gauge. And then the gauge becomes entirely non-data.

Being less simplistic, and more fair to the gauge, it’s actually showing you two numbers – the current value, and how far along the scale the current value is. But again, a simple percentage will get that information into your reader’s brain quicker with less processing required:


And that is why a gauge is almost data dis-visualisation – although graphical, it actually makes things less clear than a simple number.

Have you ever seen a gauge used where it made the visualisation better?

If you would like to discuss these issues, or the impact of emerging technology or data and analytics on your industry, then contact our Data & Analytics team.

16 July 2015

Coup d'data

The new generation of Business Intelligence (BI) software is often sold on the premise of taking the power of BI from the autocratic clutches of the IT data dictators and into the hands of the people, to play with how they please. This new world suggests that business users can simply point QlikView or Tableau at an ERP system and instantly start exploring all the juicy data without those boring data geeks holding them back with drab talk of data models and change control. Spinning together attractive dashboards of clever tree maps and animated bubble charts is a mere bagatelle for the business user in a democratised BI environment.

And these business-user-focussed tools are getting even cleverer. IBM Watson analytics has a natural language interface of exceeding impressiveness – type in “how much profit did we make in Japan”, and a graph will pop up, showing you. Microsoft also have a feature that can do this, Qlik Sense will soon have a version of it, and Tableau are undoubtedly feverishly coding away to avoid being left behind.

So is this the future? Are traditional BI products with their rigid reports and reliance on strictly controlled data sets dead? No. Democracy is a system where everyone’s voice is heard, but via a structured political system. Giving business users unfettered access to vast tracts of data stored throughout a business is probably closer to anarchy than democracy. Maintaining a single version of the truth is still incredibly important, but handing the keys over to the business to drag in data and manipulate it how they wish is likely to generate chaos.

Business users often find they reach the limit of Excel quite quickly with the large volumes of data found in 2015’s ERP systems, so having another tool that can cope with the volume is important. But, as volumes of data increase, so can the impact of small mistakes and bad assumptions about the structure of the data. Not understanding how data is connected can easily lead to double-, triple- or centuple-counting.

Making sure the data is right is just as key to the new generation of tools as it is to traditional BI tools.

The new generation of BI tools require a similar level of work to traditional tools if the data needs regular updates, especially with large volumes. And sharing the output of the new generation tools across a whole business is often more difficult than the traditional BI tools.

From a user perspective, if you can find a CFO who will continue exploring their data 15 minutes after the initial novelty has worn off, I’ll show you someone whose business is running so well, they probably don’t need BI. The same is true of credit controllers, purchasing teams and even most finance teams. There will generally be only a handful of people with remit and time within most businesses to explore data in the way that the new-generation vendors talk about. And if they find something important, they’ll then have to switch their efforts to producing it on a regular basis.

So is this not the future, then? Are the new generation of BI tools only good for impressing people in demos? Again, no. What the next generation of BI tools offers is a brilliant way of channelling business users’ knowledge into improving the BI they have. With only a small amount of assistance from data teams, the business user can quickly use the tools to drag insight from their data – and they know best what insight they need. If this insight is likely to be useful on an ongoing basis, they can hand their work to a data team to build something more robust and regular, probably in a more traditional BI tool.

For businesses starting down the road of utilising all the good data they’ve collected, the next generation of BI tools offer similar benefits. Measures and KPIs can be thrown together and trialled quickly to make sure they’re right, before embarking on a project to make them widely available.

The key with the new generation of BI tools is, as with any project, to listen to the business and understand where they are now and where they’d like to be. New, exciting bits of software are rarely a panacea, and the democratised tools from Qlik and Tableau certainly won’t solve every BI problem, but they can have a place within a strategy to help businesses make the most of the data they have."

So, where do you stand on new-generation BI tools - are they the start of a democratisation revolution or a complement to traditional BI?

If you would like to discuss these issues, or the impact of emerging technology or data and analytics on your industry, then contact our Data & Analytics team.

08 July 2015

Artificial Artificial Intelligence

In between selling books and Kindles, Amazon loves to play with the cloud. The main offering is Amazon Web Services, where you can buy a chunk of their server grunt to process what you like, which has become so successful that even competitors like Netflix use it to power their service. Then there are the slightly more quirky services like Mechanical Turk.

Have you got a task that’s too boring or time consuming to do yourself? Log on to the Mechanical Turk, ask it to perform that task in human language, leave it to process and it will deliver what you want, sometimes within a few hours. So how did Amazon develop such a sophisticated artificial intelligence engine? Easy: it didn’t.

The Mechanical Turk is named after a 19th century chess playing machine that beat Napolean and Benjamin Franklin. But, the machine was in fact, like a Victorian R2D2, just a robot case with a small human inside. And Amazon’s Mechanical Turk is a similar concept – instead of being a cloud-based artificial intelligence tool, it’s an artificial artificial intelligence tool. Behind the veil, the Mechanical Turk is a marketplace where thousands of people (Turkers) compete to process your request for a small fee.

This might sound like a fairly Heath Robinson way of pretending to have vast tracts of computing power, but it’s actually a clever way of augmenting the power of computers. Amazon originally set it up to allow them to perform tasks where human intelligence was better and quicker than machines, such as voice recognition, or judging the quality of images. The main Amazon store also uses Turkers to validate complimentary goods suggestions thrown up by their own algorithms – if any strange combinations are suggested, the Turkers reject them. This is then fed back to the algorithms to improve their hit rate.

Since its inception, the Mechanical Turk has grown massively, with over 500,000 Turkers keenly awaiting tasks to perform. This huge pool of human intelligence has attracted other users. Twitter use Turker intelligence to improve its artificial intelligence. They engage a pool of Turkers to help them understand what search queries and hashtags are about. This can help a lot, because machines are usually super-brilliant at spotting sarcasm. Scientists have also found a good use for easy access to humans. Sociologists use the Mechanical Turk to fill in surveys as part of experiments, tapping into a worldwide resource more diverse than their usual volunteers of undergraduates at their universities.

Other firms use Turkers for slightly more nefarious purposes. A computer hardware manufacturer recently got in a little hot water for asking Turkers to post 5 star reviews for their products on review websites.

Mechanical Turk isn’t the only service out there. Odesk offers IT support, UpCounsel offers legal advice and Rev offers a translation service, all remotely powered by a marketplace of overhead-free human brains. But this sea of human intelligence has a problem: human intelligence. Because there are no barriers to competition, and there is no way to differentiate themselves, human nature has meant that pricing becomes a race for the bottom as Turkers fight to get the tasks. Although it’s difficult to get data on “wages”, some surveys have suggested that average earnings are between $2 and $3 per hour (between £1.50 and £2). This obviously makes the Mechanical Turk an appealing option for firms looking to farm out work with no inconvenient overheads or employment law worries, but not so great for the Turkers.

This has led the Turkers to begin to rebel and organise, in a reverse-SkyNet move. A group of Turkers subverted the anonymisation rules and contacted each other to send a letter to Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, demanding that they be recognised as people, not production units.
Even against these concerns, having an enormous pool of human brains at your behest could allow tasks to be completed that would otherwise be impossible. That leaves just one question: can you tell whether this article came from Contently or not?"

If you would like to discuss these issues, or the impact of emerging technology on your industry, then please get in touch with Euan Cameron.

07 July 2015

Big Data and the changing role of the business analyst

A few weeks ago, I presented to the International Institute of Business Analysis Nigerian Chapter in Lagos. My session was titled “The Enterprise value of Big Data in Business Analysis – a case study on HR perspectives”.

Nigeria is one of the MINT (Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey) countries and is a green field for data and analytics. The technology platforms are growing in Nigeria and the opportunity to start harnessing data and analytics is now. From a human resources (HR) perspective, data and analytics is already gaining momentum because of the sheer volume of global organisations that have a Nigerian hub and their need to manage the human capital data that is generated.

The session started by describing Big Data –putting an emphasis on the fact there is data everywhere and it is being created at a very fast rate. Then we looked at the impact of technology and cloud computing on data creation.  When I showed a live demo of the world in beta website, the audience was surprised just how much was happening during the time of the meeting.

Then we looked at how Big Data is impacting business analysts. This is considerable – including areas such as:

  • Agility
  • Business process design
  • IT such as cloud computing, shared platforms and ERPS
  • Business Intelligence
  • Faster, smarter and easier decision making

Finally, we reviewed a human resources case study and how Big Data is impacting the role of HR professionals, looking at the impact of unstructured data and how sources like LinkedIn are making the data available to HR professionals.

The key take away points included:

  1. With the right skills, having access to a deep reservoir of Big Data provides an organisation with the opportunity to use ‘big analytics’ which in turn can provide CEOs with ‘big insights’ into their organisations.
  2. Big Data enables HR Directors to deliver – particularly in today’s economic environment – insight which they’ve long been challenged to present and which can demonstrate the return on investment of their people.

The session was covered by Nigeria Communications Week and you can read the full article using this link:  IIBA-Nigeria, PwC Highlight Big Data Changing Business Analysts' Role.

If you would like to discuss these issues, or the impact of emerging technology or data and analytics on your industry, then contact our Data & Analytics team.