Archive for July, 2008

Tech Talk and Tips #4

July 22, 2008

Every other month, Webster Pacific hosts Tech Talks, in which business professionals discuss new and effective technology solutions.  Notes, descriptions, and places to find tools recommended by the June 20, 2008 Tech Talk are published on

The End of Theory?

July 16, 2008


Very interesting article published 6/23/08 by Chris Anderson, Editor of Wired and author of The Long Tail.  Anderson says that the scientific process, which involves proposal of a hypothesis and testing data against the hypothesis, is dead.  He says that finding models which “prove” causality is unnecessary because there is so much data in the world today and that what really matters is what the large amounts of data are saying.  I agree with him that the amount of data in the world is monstrously huge and growing; i agree that proving causality is rarely fruitful.  Empirical evidence is king, as Nicholas Nassim Taleb, author of The Black Swan, argues convincingly.   However, just because causality is hard to prove, doesn’t meant that causality doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter.   A belief system is something which makes a link between action and result:  that is causality.  Without belief and causality, I have a hard time believing that society and morality would exist.  So I think there will always be a place for theory and for belief.  At the same time, I do agree with Anderson that both large amounts of data and our ability to crunch through large amounts of data makes the process of knowing our world very different than in the past.  There is more opportunity than ever to understand our world.  “Seeing” what our world looks like is going to become more of an empirical exercise than a scientific exercise.

Obama & Education

July 12, 2008

Jonathan Alter

Jonathan Alter

Great article by Jonathan Alter of Newsweek on Obama and Education.  Now is the time for Obama to step up further and be a champion of education.   McCain and the Republicans already are the champions of educational results.  Democrats, sadly, have been the champions of the teachers.

The United States now ranks 25th among 30 industrialized countries in math. “If I told you your basketball team finished in 25th place, you’d be outraged,” says former West Virginia governor Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education. When the landmark “A Nation at Risk” report was issued 25 years ago, the education system was ailing, but the United States was still No. 1 in college-graduation rates. Now we are No. 21. “We simply have not progressed,” says former Colorado governor Roy Romer, who heads a commission that recently updated the report. “The rest of the world has.” For example, the average European nation has 13 more school days than we do.

I’m looking for the data behind that claim and found the following, which is dated 1997. Anyone with current data please let me know.  Alter’s article assumes pretty much the same answer as shown in the graph below.

TIMSS 1997

Source: TIMSS 1997

The Parking Matrix

July 12, 2008
NY Times July, 12, 2008 - streetline networks

NY Times July, 12, 2008 - streetline networks

Reality IS data.  If you don’t believe, check out fractal theory and how it is visualized in nature.  I’ve written about it here.  Our world is a series of self-repeating patterns.  After you’ve studied fractal theory, you’ll never think about broccholi in the same manner. 

What does this have to do with parking?  A nifty company called Streetline Networks is creating data that will be used to help the drivers within San Francisco know where there are empty parking spots.

Google is the leader, for certain, in creating data that represents reality.  It’s a gold rush to map the world, whether it’s the human genome or parking spots or satellite images, we’re already awash in data and more is coming.  To see where this is going, look to where we have a frustration and a cloudiness about what is happening. 

Also makes me think about the Matrix.

Data Patterns in Animals

July 11, 2008

I watched this video, especially the last part about an Octopus blending in with its surroundings, and was struck by nature’s capability to change visualizations…and visualizations are representations of reality…and representations of reality, ultimately, are data.

Ethiopian Runners

July 5, 2008

Credit : IOPP/AP Photo/Thomas Kienzle

Kudos to my friend Brook Larmer for this terrific article about Ethiopian runners from Bekoji.  From a numbers perspective, what fascinates me is the similarity of the relationship between the running coach and his runners to the relationship I have seen between great principals and their teachers and the teachers’ students.  Having had a chance to witness KIPP, as well as another charter school organization, as well as an incredible organization called Summersearch, I am more convinced than ever that the passion and demonstrated resolve to do the work necessary to succeed is the formula for success.  As KIPP says, “there are no shortcuts.”  In our work at the charter school organization, we witnessed great performing schools where a “strength of mission” had been fostered between the principal, the teachers and the students.  The great schools have built a sense of mission and purpose that they use to drive themselves forward.  Now, again from the data perspective, wouldn’t it be worthwhile if we could measure “strength of mission”?  Another way I have described this strength is the strength of the relationships between the various members of an organization.  When members of an organization care about (and love) each other and are committed to their joint success, incredible things are possible.  I’m told that the great fighting units in the armed forces are great because they care deeply about each other.  Randy Pausch, in his recently released book called “The Last Lecture,” shared a methodology he used with his students, to poll his students and then rank each student based upon the degree to which other students wanted to work on projects with each particular student.  I believe one way of measuring this strength of relationship could be done by NPS (net promoter scores), which is based upon systematic polling about the question “How likely are you to refer or recommend [ john doe company / coach smith / principal harris / random kipp school / summersearch ] to a friend or colleague?”   Data360 has a survey module it is about to launch and we hope to let organizations use this tool to better understand how and whether they are creating excellence.

The Newseum

July 3, 2008
NY Times Newseum

NY Times photo

This place is awesome! If you have a chance, go to the Newseum.

After speaking at the Community Indicators conference, I went to the Newseum, the recently-opened museum for news located next to the US Capitol building. I intended to stay for about an hour and ended up staying for over three. The Newseum is a fascinating and engaging experience which I would highly recommend to anyone with an interest in current events and news.

As best I can tell, the Newseum is a non-profit organization founded by the major news organizations, including:

The New York Times – Ochs-Sulzberger Family
The Annenberg Foundation
ABC News
Hearst Corporation
The Hank Greenspun Family
Robert H. and Clarice Smith
Pulliam Family
News Corporation (Rupert Murdoch)
Cox Enterprises
John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
Time Warner
NBC News

The format of the museum is wide-open and airy, with what seemed like a couple dozen different mini-theaters and screens where you could watch video of pivotal moments and concepts of news history.

On my way into the Newseum, I got a whiff of the visual and current nature of what was in store because there must have been at least 30 different front pages on display outside the museum. I stopped in front of the San Francisco Chronicle and was thinking about the talk I had just given, in which I displayed the front page of The New York Times to make the point that while The Times has terrific articles, it just does not convey what is happening in the world in a way that is purposeful and consistent, ie newspapers do not communicate in the way that businesses get their information. Newspapers are not data driven. They don’t communicate to you like you are an owner of the enterprise which is your world. They rarely tell you about trends or data and, when they do, they don’t make the data accessible at a later date so that you can revisit the story and see how things have progressed.

The first video put tears into my eyes. News is war; news is peace. News is love; news is hate. News is life; news is death. Incredible quotes, incredible images. The First Amendment and now I am trying to remember my history classes, but they spelled it (“46 words” as they referred to it) out for me:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people to peacably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

I also salute the director of the museum for personally welcoming guests and giving a brief explanation of what was to come.

From this video, I went the Berlin wall exhibit, thinking I would move past it in a couple minutes. I watched the first video of the period when the wall actually came down and again found myself being moved to tears. The human drive to survive, to seek freedom, the happiness of finding that freedom. Reagan saying, “tear down this wall, Mr. Gorbachev,” what a courageous act. It may have been the ultimate staged event, Reagan speaking directly in front of the wall, but it really had an impact, even though it took two years after he spoke for the wall to come down. Images of people dancing on the top of the wall, people chipping away at the wall. I remembered the incredible film, “The Lives of Others,” which so powerfully depicted the lives of East Germans prior to the wall coming down.

Amazing how wise politicians get in front of issues in which they and their constituents believe.

I went to the second video of the Berlin wall exhibit, watched the period from the 60’s to the 80’s, including the construction of the wall.

The uprising in the mid 1950’s, when the East Berliners were rioting in the streets. For a few hours on one day, the citizens were in control. And they got their news about what was happening from the West. But the riots were quelled and suppresion continued.

Takeaway: Suppression cannot be maintained. Freedom of speech is related to acknowledgment of reality. Those who suppress free speech are suppressing a shared human view of reality. They are forcing their reality on others and no one wants to have a reality forced on them.

People escaping and making it to freedom. The young man who was shot and bled to death right at the edge of the border. The Americans chose not to rescue this person over concerns about an escalation with the Russians.

Watched Kennedy speak to the West Berliners and say that there was no prouder thing for a free person to say than “Ich Bien Ein Berliner.” Another great politician getting in front (literally) of an issue in which he and his constituents believe.

Then I went to the first video of the Berlin wall exhibit and watched the period from immediately after the War until just prior to the construction. The tunnels people constructed to get to freedom. The radio broadcast from RAIS (Radio America) to the people in East Berlin. These broadcasts really had an impact on the East Berliners. It was said the the East Germans were communists by day and free citizens by night, because at night they all listened to American radio, which gave them hope of what the world could be like.

I couldn’t (and still can’t) stop thinking about how people are impacted by other people. East Germans were impacted (and given hope) by the radio broadcasts. Broadcasters view their role as informing people about reality. In the instance of the radio broadcasts across the border, it was a bit more than informing, it was a bit inciteful and broadcasters/newsepeople would acknowledge that their role is NOT to incite others but to report on what’s so. Nevertheless, I think broadcasters would also say that if putting the light of reality to something (ie reporting without bias or intent to incite) causes people to act, they have fulfilled their professional responsibility.

I took the elevator to the 6th floor, passing the radio tower from one of the World Trade Centers, knowing but not excited that I was going to need to relive that experience.

On the 6th floor, I got to walk outside and look at the capital and several other buildings, to see the grand context of history in which this museum sits. There was a small exhibit about news from centuries ago, including the bible and a wonderful black wall with pairs of white words on each black panel, like war|peace, love|hate, birth|death, crime|punishment…also made me think about journalists always seem to want to discuss and report on two sides to every issue. (There was a discussion later about why journalists always seem to be liberal.)

Descending to the 5th floor, an hour into my visit, I realized that I was not going to be finished for multiple hours.

I watched a wonderful video about the 1st amendment, George Washington, the federalists, Benjamin Bache (grandson of Ben Franklin) and the nastiness of the press in those early times. The sedition act and the repeal of the sedition act, Thomas Jefferson being elected in what was called “the revolution of 1800.” I normally don’t like historical re-enactments, with charactor actors telling their characters’ views, but I found myself buying into the delivery vehicle. I started to realize how old freedom was, how fragile it remains, how wise the founding fathers were. I got a bit irritated to think about the “patriot” act and what infringements on the First Amendment have been inflicted by this law.

Videos about Bias, Mistakes, Satire, Sources

Sources: keeping sources anonymous leads to more interesting stories, but risks printing non-factual information; not having any anonymous sources leads to less stories.

Mistakes: they get made; when Reagan was shot, one newscaster first reported that he had NOT been shot; when a group of miners were trapped, a series of TV stations reported that they had been saved, leading to jubiliation amonst the families of the miners, only to have that information re-canted three hours later, leading to deep sorrow amongst the families.

Bias: It exists and reporters ARE typically liberal.

Videos about Hollywood, Newsreels. Newsreels were a business line that died a long death.

All of these videos were amazing and I was sad to learn that they were not yet for sale at the Newseum store.

The 5th Floor was the heart of the Newseum, it seemed to me. Covers of Magazines. Biographies of Journalists.

Walked down to 4th floor and immediately find a display of car destroyed by a bomb under the driver’s seat. It’s really sinking in, the price that people have paid to bring the truth to light.

There’s a lot more to the Newseum and I will go back next time I’m in DC.

At the same time, I think the most profound moment for me in the Newseum was the following:

Stephen Colbert, in a video shown on the 5th floor, put the museum in what I view as the proper perspective.  According to The Talk Radio News Service,

Stephen Colbert from the Colbert Report created an opening video for the ceremony, where he suggested a name change to “Newsoleum,” since he said museums were only for things that no one uses anymore. Overby [The Newseum Executive Director] commented on Colbert’s video at the end by saying “it’s a little scary that’s where people are getting their news from.”

The future is coming fast and it doesn’t look anything like the past.

CIC Conference

July 2, 2008

I attended and spoke at the Community Indicators Consortium (CIC) conference in Washington on Saturday, June 28th.  About 150 people were in attendance from all over the country, as well as a handful of international attendees.  The CIC is a group of people who are committed to building, monitoring and leading communities through the use of indicators (DATA!!!!).  I wholeheartedly applaud their mission and was delighted to be a part of the conference. 



  1. The focus of community indicators work should be on impacting people’s behaviors…through awareness of the indicators.  It’s very easy to get focused on the numbers and not remember that the point is to impact people’s decisions. 
  2. Met many people whose organizations were doing a great job of documenting their community’s indicators in written reports.  Great use of tables, graphs, text, footnotes.
  3.  The technology for reports (Excel and Word) seemed like it could be improved upon by making it more internet-based with the use of online database systems (ie Data360), as well as blogging software.
  4.  The dominant frequency of the reporting appears to be annually which, from a business perspective, seems infrequent; however, most of the indicators projects are being done with very limited resources, often by organizations completely outside the governmental organization.  (United Way is a big supporter of indicator projects and their were numerous attendees from the United Way.)  Additionally, most projects are constrained by the organizations that are collecting the data (what I call the “haystacks” or the “Data Keepers.”  Most data is only tracked annually and, more challenging, most data is not released until several months (or even years) after the end of the reporting period. 

People I met:


Joseph Goldman- –

  • organizes town meetings – 100 people to 20,000 people per meeting
  • world trade center – jacob javits center \
  • multi screens, 10 to a table – key is facilitators
  • instant feedback, via wireless at each table and polling keypads\
  • meetings are 7 hours straight, no breaks (no organized breaks)
  • produce reports at the end of each meeting that they hand out to participants
  • “theme team” is part of the organizing team who glean information from each of the tables and then post information on big screens, like an electronic flip chart of what is happening – insights and key questions from each table get filtered out to the group
  • reminded me of “The World Cafe”
  • cost is $20k to $2million per meeting

Mary Parks – Hall County indicator project –

part of Georgia-wide effort

  • multiple years in the making
  • very good document – graphics and text
  • wants to build some indicators that are not part of the Georgia-wide effort
  • wants to be able to have their indicators available 24×7 on the web

Deanna Zachary –

    • what constitutes interpretation?  (agreement that that providing the raw data is not interpretation…)
    • some debate amongst participants about whether there should be a common set of indicators across all communities?  a woman from Boston thought that there should be one set of indicators, Deanna was more hesitant, saying that each community has unique situations and may want their own special indicators
    • reminded me of the accounting world, which developed a set of principles for reporting (GAAP), but GAAP does not state precisely how a financial statement, even when audited, should be organized
    • i asked Deanna whether mayors of cities were taking on indicators as their own…some were, most were not…my sense is that indicators are a newer thing for communities.
  • Chris Hoenig, State of the USA (I did not see his talk, but heard about it) multi-year, high cost effort (need additional funding), view their role as simply to provide the data, not to interpret – primary state based at this point.
    • they will offer their metrics and their framework to communities
    • Deanna wondered what the role of community indicator groups would be in the face of such a large national effort
    • Chris does not view their role as interpreters but instead as an organization that will provide the data
  • John Craig, President, Pittsburgh Regional Idicators (
    • they pay for some data
    • tables and access to actual raw data seemed very good
    • interesting decisions about which counties to include in Pittsburgh indicators
  • Chris Briem, Regional Economist, University Center for Social and Economic Research, University of Pittsburgh
    • use of Census tracts for internal Pittsburgh planning use
    • heavy GIS element
    • planning department has shrunk
    • dealing with a shrinking city
    • figuring out city planning decisions with GIS software (where not to locate a school bus pickup location…ie not near abandoned buildings)
  • Alex Michaelos, University of Northern British Columbia, direct of “Canadian Index of Wellbeing”, multi-year effort to build an index for the all of Canada.
    • they are making judgments about various indicators, positive and negative indicators, boiling it down to an annual percentage change, had 14 critical issues in building the indicator, data regularly not available for multiple years after the fact (the whiskers effect)…how can anything be relevant if it is not timely?  work with statistics canada
    • have not yet determined weighting methodologies…for now they are just developing the metrics for 8 different domains
    • when they do get into weightings, they will have challenging comparisions to make, like how to weight a murder rate relative to air quality
    • he thinks that indices are effective, primarily because the media is interested in them
    • big value in creating the index is the conversations he has had with people about what is important
  • Desmond Spruijt, President, Mapping Worlds
    • He does web development work for the World Bank, South Africa and other organizations, as well as developing the Mapping World site.
    • Maps that can be re-sized to reflect the magnitude by country…most powerful chart was the resizing of HIV in our world to show that India (6 million cases) and South Africa (5 million cases) is where the most cases presently exist.
    • His sites all load very fast.
    • Show.  He’s just developed a new product called “Show” where he shows global incidences of a wide range of indicators. Built in flash/php/mySQL.
    • His program is quite beautiful.  He shows % differences by showing different colors for each country. Does not show %’s by changing sizes.
    • Has challenges when a country changes or has different definitions, like China and Taiwan. His solution is to not change the data but to change the graphing.
    • Adjustable maps (he had a different name for this) are the key to setting up a new mapping area, like the 50 United States or the US counties.
  • Tom Paper, Data360 –
    • I presented my case for “The Democratization of Data”
    • Trends of democratization on the internet, including the democratization of data
    • Forces which are inhibiting the democratization of data
    • Principles necessary for the democratization of data to flourish
    • The most important principle necessary:  interpretation
    • Bottom line and my request to others is that they share their data!
    • See pdf of slides presented here:  cic-conference-28-june-2008