Eben Upton at UCD

Eben Upton came to UCD to have a chat about the Raspberry Pi today. Actually, he was accompanied by Alan Lund from RS – whom I should mention spoke very eloquently about the challenges involved in the Raspberry Pi and why it was such a ground breaker for them.

I love the Raspberry Pi. I bought mine last November as a birthday present and one of the key attractions for me at the time was the arrival of Mathematica and Wolfram Alpha. I have a lot of time for Stephen Wolfram. But one of the key reasons that I love the Raspberry Pi is that I’m a child of the home computing era. I have been that trooper typing in the code from Atari XL Magazine to try and guide that frog across the road. I have a great respect for anyone else I ever meet who’s had a go at it. Bloody typos.

So I was never going to miss Eben’s talk today.

Eben’s point of view is fairly straightforward but it’s illustrative of other aspects of society which is that we tend not to notice problems coming down the line, not en masse anyway (cf property and stock bubbles the world over). Eben caught a decline in the numbers of students applying for computer science in Cambridge, and a corresponding decline in their experience. His hypothesis is – and I think it’s a reasonable one – that children from a certain era basically had locked down computers rather than the liberty of shoving a tape in the cassette deck and hoping that the thing would boot for a change so that we could attempt to play Flight SImulator again.

Children – to a great extent – had handheld consoles and PlayStations and the PC in the corner, to a greater extent, was probably Mum and Dad’s. So the landscape changed and became a little less free.

We’re screaming now about the lack of qualified technical people. Eben caught this vibe in 2006 and started looking at causes for it. That takes vision.

So, today, he spoke at UCD courtesy of the Mature Students Society and the School of Library and Information Science and he had a lot of interesting things to say.

He went into the history of the idea behind the Raspberry Pi in some detail in an utterly engaging manner, and talked about the difference between their original expectations around it – maybe build 1000 units and ship them out to schools and hope they fell into the right hands – and the reality which is well over two and a half million of them have been sold. Because rather than just being computers for kids. they have appealed to a far broader range of people. This was entirely unexpected.

I’m a bridge hopper on the geek front. I started programming when I was 12 or 13 – I thought it was fantastic what you could do with them, maybe wasn’t the 1% brilliant and sank rather than swam although I typed up some nice graphic thingies into the Atari and regularly beat my brother’s high score in Jet Boot Jack and Flight Apocolyse. And I liked maths a lot.

However, for various reasons, I wound up studying modern languages at university. I probably could have done computer science at the time but I didn’t, at the age of 17, operate in that zone. So I speak fluent French and German. And a smattering of Spanish. I’ve a degree in translation and a diploma in interpreting. And when I was 27. I got hired as a programmer.

Most of my working life, I have worked with IBM assembler. I have worked on Big Iron. I really want to say this because I sometimes find the technological world a bit divisive between us and non-us. I’m not a classical geek but I have done a lot of bare metal programming.

(so I told Eben that we had to get rid of this geek/non geek division).

Anyway, my experience with the Raspberry Pi is this. I bought one. Went into Maplins, bought one, instant gratificationn, the morning of my most recent birthday and then prepared to tell people. Interestingly, my mother’s response was highly positive. She’s not a technical person (although she will have a Raspberry Pi when I eventually sort out her entertainment centre, sometime after I get through the May exams) but she understood completely what Eben was trying to do. She had done it herself 30 years earlier when she went to my cousin and asked his advice about getting a computer for her two youngest children. Her only proviso is that when I make her entertainment centre work, it must be simple to operate.

I fully get that.

One of my friends who has typically fallen squarely into the Users category when it comes to computers is fascinated and wants, again, to look into the idea of an entertainment centre. This time though, she wants me to write the instructions and let her do it herself. She doesn’t at this point want to write code and isn’t really sure if there’s anything else she’d want to do.

I get that too. But more than that, I get the curiosity.

Curiosity matters a whole pile in this game and one of the factors which was most discussed today was the question of computers in education. The UK has just implemented a massive change to their computer science curriculum at EBac level which is Junior Cert level. It has gone from being a user centric process to a developer centric process. There are lots of doubts in terms of how it will be implemented and while this formed no part of Eben’s talk, I am aware that there are serious concerns about the structure put in place to support this. My main concern about this is that it is over ambition and misdirected. I got computers because they were a game, an exploration. When they become a duty, there is a very real risk that people lose a certain amount of interest. I’ve seen this over the year with mathematics and while it is important that people are mathematically literate, the simple truth is that mostly, they are not.

Eben gets this. and the Raspberry Pi Foundation get this so a lot of effort is going into professional development to support teachers and the recognition that there is a communications ask here.

The question and answer session afterwards was interesting; one of the key comments which was made related specifically to the failure of some people to bridge the divide on passing on programming skills. I think this is very important, and I also think that the idea of one true way needs to go. While maths skills are important, programming is very much a creative skill (and this is why I don’t particularly enjoy programming in Java – a lot of elements of creativity are taken out of it for me) and creativity is not a skill limited to people who self identify as geeks.

In the main, if you get a chance to hear Eben speak, I’d grab it. He is utterly engaging, he believes absolutely in what the Raspberry Pi Foundation are doing, and recognises the random steps that have changed things here and there for him – in particular relating to getting the Raspberry Pi manufactured in the UK.

He also mentioned one story which I thought was fantastic and it related to the person who invented the designs for one of the Lego based cases for the Raspberry Pi. She was 11 years old and she negotiated her royalty payment in Lego

I think that is absolutely fantastic and if that’s what it takes to get more kids looking at this, fantastic.

(the other story which I loved involved sending a teddy bear up to the edge of space. I would like to do the same with a Barbie doll – I feel it would be symbolic on a lot of levels plus an interesting technical challenge).

All in all, a fantastic couple of hours.

 

Putting a value on desired skills

I have an eye on the jobs market on an ongoing basis and this morning, a temporary vacancy dropped into my inbox for a data analyst role, requiring fluent French.

I tick these boxes. I speak fluent French; lived in France for one year, Belgium for 2. Added to that I have very good German as well. I’ve never felt, however, that language skills have been particularly valued. They are nice to haves but the jobs they are considered for are often low paid jobs. In 1999 – which is a long time ago – I laughed at a recruitment agent who told me that I was on to a good thing with two fluent languages and recent experience living in countries with both language, that oooh, I could be earning up to £14000 pounds as I would get two language premia.

That was ten thousand pounds a year less than I had been earning as a secretary in Belgium before I came back to Ireland. It was also less than I was learning as a contract secretary in jobs where all they cared about was my ability to answer the phone and type at more than 65wpm.

So, I rocked up in a job in IT that didn’t involve much of a need to speak languages. I’m now interested in data analytics anyway – more possibly interested in numeracy as well – and am following a university course which features analytics as a core skill.

This ad had an hourly rate attached. It also talked about a possibility of earning up to a particular level for very hard work.

The level was not very high. Being frank, there are a lot of secretarial roles out there which have higher salaries.

This suggests to me that language skills are not particularly valued in Ireland, and nor are data analytical roles; or at least a lot of people looking for data analysts don’t value skills enough.

I don’t have a lot of free time at the moment, but I’m inclined to see if I can possibly figure out a way of identifying the economic premium paid for perceived desirable skills. I’m inclined to wonder if we hear skills are desired simply because people don’t want to pay for them sometimes.

Coding comments again

I saw something mythical yesterday; something I hadn’t actually seen before. I saw self documenting code. This is unique in my experience.

I have seen on many occasions, code described as self documenting but which was anything but. I suspect a big contribution to the self documenting nature of the code is that it mapped a relatively simple process. The logic was straightforward. The objects were straightforward and non-complex. The code ran to 300 lines which is not a lot for a full application, and the application was culturally common. It was written in Python. It was a thing of absolute beauty.

I’m a fan – in general – of providing code comments, particularly in the zone of Why rather than How. My experience is that the why tends to get forgotten, that current knowledge gets taken for granted and that if the code base is still in use in 10 years time, you probably can’t rely on current knowledge.

In particular I am a fan of assuming that you should make your code as easy to read for the next person as possible. Ultimately, you shouldn’t assume – as a lot of programmers seem to do – that because you approach a problem in a specific way, that everyone will, and that everyone will immediately understand your approach.

And especially, if you’re not writing a clone of a well loved arcade game, it’s probably a good idea not to assume that your code will self document. What’s rare is wonderful and seriously, I have never – before yesterday – seen a piece of code longer than about 5 lines that could justifiably be called self documenting.

What’s rare is wonderful.

Dublin is changing…start up comments

Eoghan McCabe and a bunch of his colleagues came to UCD Computer Science the other day to have a chat with some of the 4th years and postgrads about how opportunities were changing in Dublin compared, in particular, to how things were when he graduated.

I’m older than Eoghan, and I’m a bit unorthodox in that my background is not really computer science but I did take an unusual journey through life and spent more than a quarter of my life (but not quite a third) working on IBM big iron. But he had a message which resonated quite a bit in that the opportunities available to graduates today have broadened quite a bit compared to what was available less than 10 years ago, and even more say, compared to what was available 20 years ago. 

This is true in a monumental way; but the way it gets discussed rarely focuses on those changes. The concept of starting your own business, and the question of innovations is pushed a lot more than it ever has been before – it seems like every third level college has some sort of incubator program in place now. The whole market of available jobs has changed – there are a lot more interesting small software firms springing up of which Intercom is obviously one, and there are a few more getting ready to push from America to Ireland like New Relic. The big institutional employers are basically not the only show in town and this is fundamentally important because people are not uniform and they tend to thrive in different environments. We have this tendency in humanity to go with the one size fits all approach in the face of overwhelming evidence that in fact, one size has never fitted all.

I’m not a fourth year – I have 20 years work experience under my belt and not all of it has been in the technology arena. But I do believe that when you have a widening of employment and employer culture, it fundamentally benefits society and supports general growth.

One thing which we did discuss however is the tendency of people to think that Silicon Valley can be recreated here, and the tendency of politicians in particular to think about recreating Silicon Valley in Ireland. I think this is unrealistic because mostly it rests on an incomplete understanding of what drives the Valley at the moment – and also, the fact that what drives the Valley has evolved over time. Possibly the weather helps a lot but a key feature which supports the structure in California is probably the finance.

So I do wish, sometimes, we could recognise that this, along with a friendlier approach to failure, are key components of how you drive a start up culture. The last time I heard a politician in Ireland discuss this, he just wanted to import more people to work here.

More than anything, however, I wish that we got shot of this idea of wanting to Be Like Something Else. I’m pretty sure the valley infrastructure won’t last forever; it’s not even that unique as there are similar things happening in the northeast United States, in Berlin, and to a lesser extent in London, in terms of funding interesting ideas. Something or someone will come along and seriously disrupt it; that’s what happens. Or, more possibly, a tech bubble will blow up.

In the meantime, the funding available to start ups in Ireland is on a small scale. When you consider the amount of investment money that went into property in 2006 – some 40% of lending for new developments were for buy to let investments – you have to wonder whether the issue isn’t so much that we don’t have the money to generate a start up scene of some description here, probably with a more limited utility focus, or idea factories but that we misapply it.

So companies like Intercom wind up going to San Francisco to get funding. I do honestly believe that understanding this is important for generating a local start up culture,

On a related note, Eoghan made two remarks which I thought were worth remembering.

  • the vast majority of successful start ups are not run by drop outs but by people who completed their studies (and then some in a few cases)
  • the average age of a start up founder is 40.

This, I think is good to know, even if you’re 25 years old.

On a completely unrelated note, there was something I really liked about Intercom before Eoghan and his colleagues came in to talk and that is that Code Kata ran there on a Wednesday morning. I made it in there one morning but I liked the idea of doing something like that not just from a networking point of view but from a diversity point of view – yes, there were mainly men there (I think I was the only woman the day I did go) – but because people from different companies tend to have different cultures. In many ways, it was illuminating.

 

 

What are we doing about big data?

The one question I hate to hear asked is “What are we doing about Big Data“?

Seriously, what are we doing about Big Data? There is no right answer to this question. What have you been doing with your data all along? Nothing? Managing it in silos?

No one should be asking “What are we doing about big data?”

The question is “How can we better exploit the data we have to improve our bottom line?”

Big Data is not an amorphous cloud. You might not even be a big data shop – are you really generating that much data? How much of it are you marrying together? What do you want to get out of it? Do you still expect to summarise it on a PowerPoint slide deck?

If someone were to ask me now, what are you doing about big data, here is what I would say first:

  • What are you doing with the data you already have?
  • Have you got someone with an overview on all the data you have?

A lot of companies have neither, to be honest, and there is very little you can do with data if you do not have that overview. This – incidentally – is why data science is sexy. A data scientist isn’t someone who plays with big data – it’s someone who plays with all your data and does things with it you might not have imagined for the simple reason that, for example, all your data stream are kept separately.

If you have not got someone with a company wide overview, are you prepared to put someone in place who is not department specific? Someone who has access to all your data, and not just the data of one department? Are you going to break down the silos for your data?

Big data has a rather movable definition, but the definition I tend to work off is Hilary Mason’s: it’s data that one machine cannot handle on its own. After that, the worth is not in that it’s big, or you have a lot of it, but in what you do with it. I hate the word, but how you leverage it. The creativity does not lie in the extent of the data but the vision applied to it.

So, the next time someone asks, what are we doing about big data, what are you going to say?

 

The Year of Code in the UK

Before I start into this piece properly, I want to make the following point absolutely crystal clear. None of what I say applies until we handle some primary skillsets adequately. They are as follows:

  1. Reading and comprehension
  2. Numeracy and logic
  3. Writing

In other words, these three skill sets are the foundation for the education system.

Now. Back with the Year of Code.

The powers that be in the UK have decided to put in place an initiative called The Year of Code. You’ll find a few details here, so happy reading. The key motivation, apparently, is to fill a coding skills gap.

This bit, I thought, was interesting:

Such endeavours mark the build up to September, when computer coding will become a compulsory part of the curriculum for every child over five.

I am sure someone thinks this is a very good idea. I am not one of them. I do honestly think you’d get a lot further with teaching people to code – kids aged five – if you made sure they could read and write first. And count. Coding without some numeracy skills just isn’t going to happen. And this is from someone who has been pushing Scratch for 10 years. Scratch – by the way – is a computer programming language developed by MIT to help children to learn to program.

So. There have been comments about the Year of Code. Its public face did not do very well on BBC Newsnight during the week. She cannot program. And the discussion is full of comments about how easy it is to code. It is very easy to code when you are typing what is in front of you.

I bang on, from time to time, about data in itself being pointless if you don’t sit down and work out what questions you want to ask it. Programming has a similar dimension. Anyone can write – environment set up aside:

print(“Hello World”)

and that’s a program.

But I don’t spend my day whiling around writing strings to a screen. I use it – for example – to automate calculations I do frequently. I use it to run statistical analysis. In my entire life I have never spent one Saturday developing an application that answered a question I did not have. Some of those questions have been assignments, some of them are things for myself (there is a nice little R script under production to pull the figures for property sales in Cork apart). Some things have been websites. Programming and writing code has always had a planned output.

So I don’t necessarily think focussing on code is the primary thing you should be doing here. Focussing on problems people can solve, that’s a far more important skill. And you need elite communication skills to be able to do that.

Not a lot of people remember now, as they wander around with their iPhones and Androids, that 60 years ago, there wasn’t much in the way of computering power outside the government. The first commercial computer to come into Ireland was, as far as I am aware, bought for Aer Lingus, and in fact, one of the first commercial problems to be solved using computers was the whole airline reservation thing in America. Legend has it that issues in the manual process in booking tickets led to the boss of IBM and the boss of American Airlines winding up bumped off a flight due to overbooking caused by failures to keep records in several airports aligned and so, over coffee, in a position to have a chat about how this could possibly be made more efficient leading to fewer people getting bumped off. We think we have it bad now.

Anyway, the point of that story was here is a problem – chaotic air ticket bookings getting lost, duplicated, overbooked – and there is a man with a vision, a bunch of highly paid computer geniuses and some money – who allowed the problem to get (reasonably) resolved. Every day, someone has a problem, and someone fixes it.

When we focus on the response, and not the recognition of the problem first, we are not really teaching people to code. We’re teaching them to regurgitate. So being honest, focussing on code rather than problem analysis is probably a bad way to go. Doing it at age 5 when you’ve not fully covered literacy and numeracy, that’s not ideal either.

Moving back to the year of code, I don’t like what is essentially a PR initiative. The assertion that, for example, we can teach teachers to code in a day, is wildly inaccurate. You can’t. And yet, there are going to be courses doing just that.

I learned to code when I was 13 years old. A bit, that is. I learned some basic from a massively inspirational maths teacher who swiped a week out of his schedule to teach 29 13 year old girls to write some basic and again, to work out how you might break down a problem. I stopped when I was 14 for some reason and I started again when I was 27. I do honestly believe that children should learn to write programs but that this is not really practical without the supporting skills of reading, writing, numeracy and breaking problems.

So the objective of this is to plead – in Ireland – please do not implement a PR exercise like this. Do something a bit more indepth. Talk to the people who run with Coderdojo in Ireland – we are getting hundresd if not thousands of kids up and down the country into schools and halls on Saturdays – ie outside school hours – and identify what drives this; what makes them enthusiastic to do it. When you put money into getting 30 Raspberry Pis into a school, learn how to use them creatively. Treat the computer lab a bit like a woodwork lab, where things get tried and tested. Raspberry Pis are not expensive, and if one gets fried the odd time, so be it. They can very often be fixed by formatting the SD card holding their operating system. Load the lab up with stuff from Adafruit. IT and programming covers a multitude between messing around with hardware (program up those Christmas lights and motion controlled webcams). They are not typically expensive – not in the way that Apple iPads are – but from a technical and programming point of view are enormously learner friendly. And teach kids the wider skills of recognising the computer equivalent of “I want to make a table, how do I achieve this”. Focus on the steps they make to do this rather than the end result.

This is a skill more valuable than anything. The one that doesn’t make you give up at the first hurdle.

Make this a general education policy. Not a PR push. And make it inspirational.

I see a lot of commentary about how some people aren’t talented for programming skills, and, indeed for language skills. We don’t tend to tolerate this from reading any more (although we still do for basic numeracy and in this country, foreign languages).

The simple truth is society changes and reading and writing become universal.

This can be true for analytic thinking and problem breakdown. And programming.

In the meantime, I’d favour teaching 15 year olds how to use Python to do maths calculations rather than a calculator but that’s just because that’s the way I do it. And Scratch. Don’t forget Scratch

Google Glass and Virgin Atlantic. And SITA.

Yesterday, the world learned that Virgin Atlantic were planning to use Google Glass for their customer relations management. The world also learned that Virgin Atlantic were planning to use Sony Smart watches as well but for some reason, that got sort of ignored. I don’t know why.

Virgin’s press release is here. If you do a little reading, you find out they are doing it in cooperation with SITA, whose press release is here.

Needless to mention, it generated a lot of notice, mostly about Google Glass, and not a lot about what Virgin Atlantic were actually doing. So the first question you really have to ask is are they doing anything particularly new on the business process point of view. The answer appears to be no.

Here’s the money quote from the Virgin Atlantic:

Virgin Atlantic, working with air-transport specialist SITA, is the first in the industry to test how the latest wearable technology, including Google Glass, can best be used to enhance customers’ travel experiences and improve efficiency. From the minute Upper Class passengers step out of their chauffeured limousine at Heathrow’s T3 and are greeted by name, Virgin Atlantic staff wearing the technology will start the check-in process. At the same time, staff will be able to update passengers on their latest flight information, weather and local events at their destination and translate any foreign language information. In future, the technology could also tell Virgin Atlantic staff their passengers’ dietary and refreshment preferences – anything that provides a better and more personalised service. During the six week pilot scheme, the benefits to consumers and the business will be evaluated ahead of a potential wider roll-out in the future.

My emphasis. With one possible exception, Virgin staff are doing nothing new here from a business process point of view:

  • Virgin Atlantic has a limo service for their Upper class passengers, so they already know who the passenger is.
  • They typically guide the passenger through check in when they arrive
  • They typically give the passenger flight information (everyone’s favourite, is this flight on time). Possibly they don’t do the weather and events thing at the moment (although it’s not impossible – I’ve never travelled Upper Class with Virgin Atlantic and the information is, in any case, easily obtainable, printable and easy to make available).
  • I have some doubts about the foreign language utility – I would love to see how that works out in practice.

There is nothing really all that special here – if you like, the key difference is the method by which they are managing existing processes. Frankly, I doubt very much whether they are carrying out check ins using Google Glass  – a bit more information from SITA would be nice in that respect because the language of the press release is interesting to say the least “start the check in process”.

But all of this could be done using technology which has been around for a few years – and it is entirely possible that Virgin Atlantic are already doing it – using things like d iPads so again the question, is what is this adding?

SITA Labs have already done a lot of research in this area and some of the applications are nice. They have a press release here and it has some interesting stuff in it. This is an interesting quote in the context of the Virgin Atlantic story:

Travel documents and loyalty cards can be scanned by smart glasses.

But

Peters added: “Specifically, our research at SITA has shown that for any type of use in the air transport industry the technology needs to be more robust to avoid breakages and the cost will have to come down. The camera quality will also need to be enhanced. Currently it requires near perfect light conditions within the airport for scanning documents to be successful.

This dates from October 2013 by the way and specifically, smart glasses were being looked at in the context of scanning barcodes. And they weren’t, at that time, up to the job on a day to day basis. It may be telling that the Virgin Atlantic trial focusses on a subset of passengers – a very small number.

SITA’s description of what the wearable devices are being used for is interesting:

Airline staff are equipped with either Google Glass or a Sony SmartWatch 2, which is integrated to both a purpose-built dispatch app built by SITA and the Virgin Atlantic passenger service system. The dispatch app manages all task allocation and concierge availability. It pushes individual passenger information directly to the assigned concierge’s smart glasses or watch just as the passenger arrives at the Upper Class Wing.

They really can only do this if they already know who the passenger is before they get to the Upper Class Wing, usually because they arriving in a limo which Virgin Atlantic already know about.

So what do I think about this?

Well, based on all the available information, Google Glass is, at best, replicating existing utility. Now you could ask the question is it really necessary to do that when we’ve got paper and iPads and the like but that is not really the right question. The question is does it make the experience more efficient for both Virgin Atlantic and the passenger. That is open to debate, and it is open to debate for this particular quote (also highlighted above).

In future, the technology could also tell Virgin Atlantic staff their passengers’ dietary and refreshment preferences

Airlines already have to ensure their staff are aware of dietary requirements for passengers, for vegetarians for example. So the interesting thing is right now, Virgin Atlantic’s implementation of Google Glass doesn’t appear to be able to deal with this sort of information. One key reason for this – right now – is that Google Glass is not being implemented in the business processes that involve the need to have that information, which for the most part, is probably cabin service in the aircraft. It is possible that it might well be useful in the lounge service for Upper Class passengers – but this service is not available to all Virgin Atlantic customers. It remains to be seen whether they will implement the hardware in the cabin – my gut feeling is that it will require regulatory agreement so it’s not going to happen soon.

What is happening is they are accessing information already in their possession using a different device. Where once it was a computer, or possibly a tablet, it is now some sort of wearable device.

They are replicating existing processes. Whether there is a gain for them in so doing – their press release talks about the glamour of flying and I don’t see this having an impact on that – is open to debate, and it’s what a 6 week trial is all about.

They are not using the devices to collect new data in the customer interaction zone at this point in time. and this is an important point. And if they do, well there are other considerations to take into account before implementing them.

Right now,, I would take the view that Virgin Atlantic are fully aware of things like data retention legislation and data protection. I certainly would not assume that they are hopping down the road to matching passengers up with their dietary requirements using Google Glass because they already do that using good old fashioned data entry and in any case, they have not implemented a business process with Google Glass applying that type of data at this point in time.

I will be very interested to see how this trial works out – I must make a note to check with SITA’s social media channels in about 8 weeks’ time to know if they will at least provide some sort of feedback given that this caused quite the bit of noise.

 

 

 

Boards of various state bodies

Another data cry for help. I’m trying to identify all the state bodies and the members of their boards to do some membership analysis

I have a list as follows:

  • NTMA
  • NAMA
  • Coillte
  • Bord na gConn
  • Bord na Mona
  • Bord Gais
  • Electric Ireland

It’s not a very long list so I know it’s non-exhaustive.

I’m interested in the state bodies I have missed like the Arts Council and other similar organisations and I am interested in a comprehensive list of the members of the boards for each of these organisations.

If you can suggest organisations I have missed, that would be a great start.

Thanks a million.

 

Captcha usage

Hi folks,

This is the first of occasional small requests for help on the data front.

I have a tiny little poll going here on the subject of captchas. Three simple questions with yes/no answers.

I am keeping it open for another week or so and then I will publish some comments on the outcome.

______Interim results suggest fewer than half my respondents are aware that reCaptchas are used to solve OCR problems. This is interesting.