March II 2008

20 March 2008

Fredric Morris, Editor-In-Chief, Connect-World
Fredric Morris

This is the first in a series of eLetters that will – from time to time – explore some of the issues and risks inherent in the growth of Internet access and the Information Society. The use of such powerful new tools as data mining to analyse personal data collected on the Web, for example, has significant social and personal implications that call for international regulatory action. Most of you, my readers, are involved in some way with ICTs – many, perhaps with the questions raised by this letter.

How do you feel about these questions? What needs to be done to take proper advantage of the technologies while containing the risks?  What sort of regulatory action, what sort of international action is called for? Write to me, I would like to include your thoughts and opinions in future eLetters.

Correlated beyond all recognition, advertising, and the death of privacy 

Once upon a time advertising was just a way to send a company’s message to a consumer. It was a one-way street. Today we are moving in a different, disturbing, direction.

I am not against advertising; it is an important driving force in our economy. It helps us make choices. It informs us of many things we really want to know or are not aware of, but should know about. I think some ads are truly sensational, but then, I even like catalogues. Advertising supports all the broadcast programming we see on free TV, makes magazines and newspapers affordable and one day soon will be bringing the same sort of benefits to your mobile phone.

Targeted advertising, or ‘addressable advertising’ as it is now called, is the goal of today’s advertisers and, by extension, all advertising vehicles. The idea is to address ads targeted to match each individual consumer’s profile. Understanding the consumer’s profile, their interests, needs, wants and desires can – in principle – let advertisers address highly specific messages to each individual. The difference between principle and practice is, in this case, far from trivial. Although this may seem innocent, many of the implications are not.

The data to learn about customer preferences is available. There is a staggering amount of collectable data flowing over the world’s networks. It can be, and is, collected in a great number of ways at a great number of locations, by a wide variety of interested organizations and individuals.

Websites, governments, cable company set-top boxes, mobile phone platforms, suppliers, and location-based services among others, all gather information about us – their citizens, users and buyers. The data and information they gather, properly analyzed, tell them much more about us than we suspect. Governments use the information they gather to profile people and find terrorists, tax-evaders, criminals, track epidemics and much else. Advertisers want to understand how to reach and sell to customers, so that is how they use the data.

The main search engines save data about every search we make, they know if we are concerned about a medical problem, visit porn sites, dating sites, care about model trains, have a police record, buy books about history and like lingerie – Sorry! Is that your wife? Perhaps not? Do you have a mortgage, a credit rating?

It is amazing the sort of things a search engine knows about you. But it is not only the search engine you use, it is the sites you visit, the social networks you use, it is Facebook and YouTube – in fact it could be any site you try to access and some you don’t, you just get re-directed there by an innocent looking link.

What is more amazing are the sorts of things today’s best data mining systems can piece together from the odds and ends. Data mining software and banks of computers can cull facts and correlations from otherwise intractable masses of data. Some of the more innocent uses can be found on the Microsoft AdCenter Labs website. The Labs’ software can predict a user’s age, gender, readiness to buy or sell, or interest to engage in another sort of transaction based upon the user’s recent search history. It can also funnel and analyse search patterns and keyword usage in a wide variety of other ways.

It gives me a creepy feeling to think about the data mining done to target consumers and for other less innocent reasons. We are being relentlessly stalked every time we buy something with a credit card, when we watch a show on cable TV, search for something – really everything and anything – on the Web. Anytime we do anything on the Web, we are subject to the scrutiny of all kinds of data snoops. The high gods of consumerdom know things about us we even we do not know ourselves – and they are getting better at it every day. The world’s governments might know even more and what less savoury groups, including those with criminal intent, might know is frightening.

Yahoo according to one report, and I am certain Google as well, can predict ad response rates and even the time of day the ads will work best. Yahoo, like Microsoft, can analyse the online behaviour on its network, and spot potential buyers at various stages of their on-line search. The depth of analysis and correlation that the best data mining software can perform is awesome. They might for example, based on where you live, the searches you do and the diverse interests you have be able to predict which films you like and which automobiles will interest you. In addition, data miners can analyse the sort of politics you are likely to believe in, what new products you will love and hate, what – if any – books, magazines and newspapers you might like to read.

There is so much data that there is no way to analyse it properly without powerful computers and sophisticated software. There is also no way to act upon the information and devise an appropriate return without, again, powerful computers and sophisticated software. Assuming we can analyse the data and frame a response, the need remains to get the message to the target at the right time and place, but current platforms are designed with just this sort of interactivity in mind.

IBM recently announced a new project called Kittyhawk, to build a worldwide, distributed, supercomputer. The Kittyhawk platform will, they expect, be able to run the Internet, – the entire Internet – alone, as a single application, and replace the current fairly random assortment of interconnected computer networks. The migration of the Internet to one platform, should it ever happen, combined with Kittyhawk’s massive computing power (16,384 racks with up to of 67.1 million cores and 32 petabytes of memory) will increase the power of data mining power to unimaginable levels. Some of the Kittyhawk speculation sounds more like science fiction than fact.

Many of the potential dangers of uncontrolled data mining are obvious, but there is a more subtle, little understood danger that resides in the very nature of data mining: the knowledge discovery methodology employed, the algorithms used to spot patterns and trends and the correlations encountered between the data elements. The process sifts through vast amounts of data searching for patterns not easily seen or found by simpler forms of analysis as they are hidden by the volume and complexity of the data. Neural networks and a variety of mathematical tools are used to spot patterns and calculate the degree of correlation between different types of data. So far, so good, there is no problem with the process; there is a problem, though with way people understand the results.

There is an old saying, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics”. I always attributed it to my father – he repeated it often, but according to the Wikipedia, Benjamin Disraeli said it first and Mark Twain later popularized it in the U.S. We need to remember this well whenever we analyse correlations and other sorts of statistical analysis; the numbers may be right, but interpretations often lie.

Correlations are among the most misunderstood mathematical tools. When data is strongly correlated, we tend to assume they are interrelated or even that one of the items causes the other. Gasoline, beachwear and ice cream sales may be strongly correlated – they all go up in the summer – but one is hardly the cause of the other. Genes that produce supermodels might correlate with wealth, fame, newspaper scandals and the garment industry, but the genes are hardly the direct, sufficient, cause of any of these.

In extreme cases, the searches of serious scholars using the Web might be correlated with serial murderers, perverts, tax evaders, terrorists or in some way with whatever else they may be researching.

These cases might be exaggerated, but the guilt by implication – or correlation – and the invasion of privacy that data mining implies are real issues. Data mining results in the wrong hands can destroy credibility, put jobs at risk, destroy families, and create opportunities for blackmail.

The risks might not be obvious, but today’s Big Brother is a computer programme linked to the Web. We, and our lives, might be correlated beyond all recognition, and I see little serious government action anywhere to contain the danger.

Our next Connect-World Europe Issue will be published later this month. This edition of Connect-World will be widely distributed to our reader base and, as well, at shows where we are one of the main media sponsors such as: Sviaz / Expo Comm (14-18 May, Moscow), FT Mobile Media Conference (15-16 May, London), Wimax World Europe (29-31 May, Vienna), and Von Europe (11-14 June, Stockholm).

The theme for this issue will be, The evolving ‘Net’ – Rising to the challenge of rising use.

When speaking of networks, conventional wisdom and traditional business models no longer work as they did. The lines are blurring in the fixed, mobile and even broadcasting markets. Wired networks now handle traffic once thought suitable only for wireless and wireless is substituting wired in a broad range of applications. Seamless handoffs between wired and wireless networks –and,  indeed, mergers, partnerships and consolidations bringing together networks and players of all sorts – further confuse the once prettily organised networking landscape.

This issue will examine what these changes in technologies and the market mean for the sector. How can the residential and business consumer best be served? What does the future hold for network operators of all types?

Europe II 2008 Media Pack; Click here


March I 2008

6 March 2008

Fredric Morris, Editor-In-Chief, Connect-World
Fredric Morris

State of the ‘Union’ – seamless or stitched together? Simple systems for simple people

The oft cited vision of seamless communications just isn’t happening. Not yet anyway, and it looks like it will take time to weave all the pieces into a whole, seamless, cloth. No doubt it will come to pass, but the vision sold by operators and equipment vendors is still something of a mirage. Comments by research and consulting groups, notes in industry publications and newspapers and talk at shows all seem to confirm that the glowing forecasts of transparent, automatic, digital union between digital devices and services were premature. Seamless connectivity is growing, but like any child, it is growing in fits and starts and subject to whims and tantrums. It is still far more stitched than seamless.

The technology exists, or at least many pieces of it in the hands of several vendors, but each company has its own idea of what ‘seamless’ means and how to deliver the dreamed of ‘zipless’ telecom experience. Things were simpler in the days of black-only telephones and manual plug-in switchboards.

Today, in addition to the traditional tied-to-the wall desk phone – plain, keyset, feature phones and the like – we’ve got mobile phones, PCs with Skype, instant messaging and email, conferencing with virtual presence, video, PDAs with WiFi and, shortly, WiMAX as well. This should make life simpler, but like so many advances that make life easier, they only make it easier to do more things at once – especially at work – and making it all work is anything but simple. At work? Where’s that? Well, today, at least in theory, it could be just about anywhere, but anyone who travels a lot know that it doesn’t always work that way, especially when time and resources are in short supply.

Have you heard about seamless connectivity? You are at home watching TV. A call comes in, it flashes on the TV screen, you pick up the handset next to you – that happens to be your cellphone linked via WiFi to your landline and your daughter appears on the TV screen. She has locked the keys inside her car. You continue talking on your phone as you go out the door to help her and the line seamlessly switches to your mobile operator’s network. After you find out where she is located, on the way to meet her, you check the Internet using an available WiFi or, soon, WiMAX network. You find a 24/7 automotive locksmith, click on the telephone number and call automatically via the mobile network. On the way back home, a colleague calls from abroad, many time zones away, on Skype; ‘we need some numbers for a meeting in an hour…’

I can go on for quite a while building ever more complicated scenarios. There are an infinite number of ways to link services, devices and application with others, intertwining personal with business uses. The connections, the uses, the possibilities, are almost limitless and I didn’t even include the role mobile video and TV will play or that of NFC (Near Field Communications) including RFIDs. It’s a great picture, a story to warm the heart of any techno-freak, equipment supplier, applications developer, operator or business. Just one problem – that’s not the way it works, at least not yet, in the real world. Despite the hype about seamless connectivity, too many pieces of the puzzle are still missing and some – such as open connectivity via interconnection and clearing hubs between operators and service providers instead of separate one-to-one agreements for roaming, SMS interchange and the like – are still in the works.

We all know how frustrating and counterproductive it is when you can’t reach the right family member, friend or business associate to resolve a problem, to organize an encounter or just to pass on a bit of news that can’t wait or when you can’t access services or information – then and there – when you need it. At home this might cause stress, problems, missed opportunities and misunderstandings. At work, this can cost big bucks. It happens all the time; since there is not much we can do about it today we just chalk it up to experience or overhead. Seamless communications promises to resolve these types of problems.

At the moment, businesses are leading the march through the minefields towards unified communications. Most really big companies will find it takes vision, faith, courage and lots of cash and time to unify a multitude of legacy systems which often do not speak with one another. Seamless, unified communications, in most instances, will call for centralised – and, needless to say, expensive – infrastructure and standardisation of much of the equipment in the field, scattered in offices and installations around the globe and even in the hands and homes of their staff members. It is no wonder that many companies, although they recognise the benefits, are dragging their feet and waiting before committing the resources needed for such an arduous transition. The costs will certainly come down over the next few years, and by planning the normal evolution of internal systems and the normal, programmed, replacement of equipment in the field with seamless connectivity in mind, companies will be able to migrate somewhat more gently into unified communications.

IP-driven systems, especially Voice over IP (VoIP), and the sort of context-based services that only truly large-scale systems can provide mean more than just cheaper communications. Existing systems inflexibly map each service, each user and device to a specific number and a highly specific access scheme. In the future, employees will take a unique system-wide access number with them wherever they are. With this number, they will be accessible, by anyone, wherever they are and conversely will have access to whatever services and information they need, or are authorised to access from any company facility throughout the world. This sort of two-way access to people and resources will tend to further accelerate the trend towards decentralisation, reduce traffic and increase the percentage of home-based workers.

Given their vast experience, infrastructures and technical competence, not to mention their spider-like position at the centre of the communications web, it is no wonder that the large international carriers are all looking at the seamless communications market. Local operators, especially mobile operators, are developing options for the home and SME (small and medium enterprise) markets. A number of the largest network suppliers are planning to offer network management services to support operator and enterprise seamless connectivity programmes.

I wonder, given the number of systems, services, applications and devices – and developers’ unstoppable urge to keep adding bells and whistles – how many of these wonderful seamless features and services we are going to use? I don’t know anyone who uses or knows of all, or even most, of the features on their cell phones or their MS Office applications. Despite dealing with ICTs and complex systems all my life, when it comes to applications I am a simple person. I like sophisticated solutions, but I like them simple. I like solutions that do everything, but hide their complexity behind slick and simple to use interfaces. I know everyone talks about how easy seamless connectivity will be, but based on past experience with mindlessly complex ‘simple’ systems, I am wary. Will the systems be truly seamless, truly super-simple to use systems or will they be overblown, over-hyped, stitched together crazy-quilts with everything you never wanted to use?

Connect-World: Africa & the Middle East (2008) will be published next month. This edition of Connect-World will be widely distributed to our reader base and, as well, at shows where we are media sponsors such as: ITU Telecom Africa (12-15 May, Cairo), Tunisia Telecom, (Tunisia, 22-25 October), and GSM ME Gulf and North Africa (UAE, 2-3 December).

In addition to our normal global mailing, this issue will also be distributed to a select list of world leaders, to the ranking executives of the world’s largest companies including the Fortune 1000, to government authorities, and to international institutions. This issue will also be available on our website to all other interested readers throughout the world.

The theme of Connect-World: Africa & the Middle East (2008), our coming edition, will be Convergence and data – pushing the limits of the network, pushing the limits of economic and social development.

The growth in data transmission, together with the exponential rise in video and images in general, and the tendency to funnel more through fewer, converged, networks are largely fuelling the need for greater broadband capacity and speed. Not so long ago, we looked to universal telephony as a goal all nations should strive for to meet the needs of their citizens. Today, the growth of the Information Society has raised the bar; universal access to broadband is now the goal – indeed the necessary pre-condition – for digital, economic and social inclusion. This has stretched the resources of governments, service providers, equipment suppliers, businesses and all others involved in the provision and use of broadband.

The need is evident, but there is much to do not only to rollout broadband access and pay for it, but also to make the best use of it to contribute to economic growth and the personal well-being of urban and rural users alike. What should we all be doing, what can be done, not just to provide broadband, but also to use it productively?

Africa and the Middle East 2008 Media Pack; Click here