Thursday, 21 August 2014

Work or pleasure, access to the internet is a must

'Internet' by transCam
under a CC license
It is that time of the year that colleagues, friends and myself have just been, currently are or plan to be on holidays. I couldn't help but notice that although most clearly state that they plan to "switch off", all be a few actually mean "do something different to work, have fun but keep in touch". And by that, they mean via social media, skype/viber/whatsapp/hangouts/etc., e-mail and the other digital means of communication.

WiFi accessed internet tends to be mainstream in hotel/ rooms, bars, cafes, and - practically - "everywhere". Yes, I've come across free internet access facilities in small and far away places (and, needless to say, I found that pleasantly surprising). On top of that, most smartphone owners tend to have a kind of data plan on their contract.

While the demand for internet connectivity itself is sufficient to explain the corresponding market development, I wonder how come people have shifted their habits so much. I mean, yes, people did use to send postcards in the past but that was about it. Were there "communication needs" to be satisfied that were technologically impossible to address? Or did the needs develop after the right technologies emerged? Is it a trend or is it here to stay?

This time, I'll leave it at this point. There have been opinions on that (and some research, as well) but I find it is still premature to write a bottom line, yet :-)

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Batteries for our power-hungry lives

'Power sunset' by Khalid
Al-Haqqan under a CC license
The use of electricity has been one huge step for mankind. I sometimes wonder whether the electricians/ engineers of the first few years of electricity (in the 19th century) could predict the magnitude of its applications some 5-7 generations in the future.

Today, in the urban world, at least, it is very hard to leave away from a mains socket for long. True, big household appliances, such as the stove, the microwave, the washing machine and the vaccuum cleaner - to name a few - are nothing of an innovation, nowadays. But numerous other (electronic) gadgets for our daily life have emerged. Some competing for our "free" time, while others aggressively claim to be (and some truly are) productivity tools. Laptops, tablets, mobile phones and smartphones, digital cameras, mp3 players are amongst the popular ones. The list gets expanded constantly as we speak. Smartwatches, wearable devices, medical devices, and all those existing or emerging devices that gear up for the internet of things.

Don't worry... I won't be lecturing you on our level of dependence on those numerous electric and electronic devices. After all, they are here to make our lives a bit better, even if we are talking about small things, such as reading a tweet from a friend, googling an unknown word or anything of that scale (I'm being a bit unfair, since living in networked wolds offers great potential - and I've written something vaguely on that in the past).

But I will share with you that being "forced" to seek for a mains socket every so often annoys me.
OK, not so much when I'm at home or at work but definitely when I'm away on a business trip or on holidays. It is 2014, I know. There are power sockets in most places. Charging hubs in airports and cafes with wireless charging stations starting to appear, as well.

You may feel differently but I' d really applaud any development that would increase our flexibility away from a mains socket. Having said that, the options are limited. Sun charging doesn't seem to be living up to the hype (it takes too much time under intense sunlight to charge a moderate smartphone). Energy harvesting is still in development. Batteries have come a long way so as to hold more power, endure many more recharging cycles, tolerate heat or cold, etc.  but at the same time, however, our devices need more juice to "do more stuff". I feel that we are witnessing an energy stalemate, where the power storage front barely manages to meet the energy demand of our devices.

Unfortunately, as a consumer, I don't see any major consumer drive to prolonged power independence. I hope I am wrong. I hope engineers will manage to give us better energy storage options and, at the same time, manage to do more "stuff" with less power. To put it in a more naive (but challenging) way: My 10-year old mobile had a 900 mAh battery and could last for some 7-8 days albeit under low use (say, a phone call per day). My current smartphone has a 1500 mAh battery and can barely reach 4 days (with WiFi, 3G, BT and GPS off). Could a future smartphone survive for a week with all the bells and whistles on? I only wish....

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Getting some data is easy...

'Target' by Nina Matthews
under a CC license
...getting the right data, not necessarily so. Getting valid and usable results out of it is a completely different story!

Since our world in becoming increasingly driven by data-fed decisions (in theory, at least), it may be useful to check, from time-to-time, the route from raw data acquisition, to data aggregation, processing and analysis, to the data-driven decisions, their implementation and their verification.

I don't know if the overall data production has increased, world-wide. I would suspect it has. An increased number of tasks are accompanied by data recording for the shake of quality monitoring, performance evaluation, security, etc. That is, not taking into consideration activities that aim at data production itself, such as research activities, meta-analysis studies, etc.

Access to data is another issue. Personally, I feel access to data has improved due to (i) more discrete data points/ sets being publicly available and indexed in an convenient way (e.g., search engines), (ii) more data being available in an organised, searchable form (e.g., databases) and (iii) more information on how to get close to the various data sets/ databases in publicly available (e.g., in publications, the press, search engines, etc.). What is hard for me to know is whether the data seemingly available for each instance of need is truly comprehensive or, at least, reasonably representative of the total data truly available. Further to that, it is a priori unclear, whether the data available is representative of the population under study or suitable to address the problem in question. Proper definition of the problem and careful examination of the data can provide answers to many of the questions above, of course, but in this case I'm just voicing the general concerns.

Data analysis also seems to be easier today. Sometimes, too easy. Sure, there are plenty of people that know how to use the right tools on data but, since such tools are becoming increasingly user-friendly and accessible, I suspect that not all that use them really know what they are doing (on their defense, some problems are difficult to define). And if these people are involved in decision-making then things can become questionable (or funny). Ah, and despite all the hype on big data, people still need to do some thinking!

The last bit is implementing actions based on the results of data analysis, taking into account ethical considerations and ensuring that those actions (i) actually correspond to what the results have identified and (ii) that they work as intended.  Politics and policy making is not a purely science-based territory but, rather, an arena where scientific results, gut impulses, interests from various parties and plain luck - to mention a few factors only - compete to affect decisions. I'm not rushing to label that 'wrong'. After all policy making has various expectations to meet and, be it as it may, it has been an integral part of our civilisation. 

I strongly feel that we should continue studying our policy making processes (there are various approaches to that),  we should further improve our quality control mechanisms and develop the courage to critically review policies and measures in a transparent way at a regular fashion.