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Saturday, 28 June 2014

Information Management Quote of the Week 29/06/14

"The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms".


See also:

Friday, 27 June 2014

Why winning with "Big Data" is like a visit to Whitefellah Burrows

Like prospecting for opals, mining text data can leave you with an awful lot of mullock to shift...

A recent tweet by Carla Gentry put me onto a post suggesting that mining of text data could be the “killer application for “Big Data”


Then again, maybe not...

Another of our stop-offs during our trip around Australia was in the South Australia township Coober Pedy – an Outback community of about 4000 people in the very middlest of the Middle-of-Nowhere.
The town’s name –Kuppa Piti in the original Aboriginal dialect of the region – literally means “Whitefellah Burrows”. And the whole town is effectively just a series of great big holes in the ground, dug by prospectors seeking the elusive treasure of opals, a delicate gemstone formed from translucent deposits of hydrated silica. Indeed, as well as working underground, many of the locals actually live there to escape the blistering heat of the day and bitter cold of the night-time. It’s a fascinating place, if not exactly pretty!

Coober Pedy and the surrounding region is the source of approximately 80% of the total world supply of opals, and is mainly associated with white or “milky” opal, where the whole stone is extracted, shaped and polished. A smaller supply of boulder opal, where a backing of ironstone is maintained with the opalescent layer, comes from outback Queensland in the area around Winton, while small amounts of black opal are mined in New South Wales. (Overall, Australia supplied 97% of the world’s opal). Much debate comes within the opal community as to whether the white or boulder type opal is best! (Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, I suppose; my wife Kylie has always hated opals, yet we opted to invest in a rare red-hued boulder opal from Bruno in Winton, so you can guess where our thoughts are on this one!)

Interestingly, every opal claim in Australia – whether in Coober Pedy or Queensland - is still staked out by hand and granted to an individual person. Each claim area is 100m by 50m wide - no more, no less – and anyone so minded can turn up, stake out on an unclaimed spot and start digging (subject to paying the local government your $66 per month claim fee). So whereas Australian gold, copper, tin and diamond mining are now all carried out pretty much exclusively on an industrial scale, this method of granting opal mining licenses means that there are no “Big Mining” opal interests. Opal mining is very much still a cottage industry full of character (and characters). This makes for a unique, vibrant and very human – if somewhat anachronistic – community of miners.
The challenge for the opal miners is to actually find the stuff. There’s really not very much of it around in comparison to the tons and tons and tons of worthless dirt spoil (or “mullock”) that surrounds the vibrant slices of valuable gemstone. The landscale around Cooder Pedy is littered with thousands of mounds of mine workings, with spoil piled up pretty much everywhere as if giant moles had infested the area. As if that wasn’t enough to deal with, gem opals are outweighed in huge quantities by the worthless, colourless “potch” opal that predominates. Some choose to make their living prospecting for opal by “noodling” (searching by hand through the loose surface rubble – also known as “fossicking”). Most opal miners get down-and-dirty in the many kilometers of underground tunnels (most dug by hand, although machine mining is now part of the modern-day mix). Great care is also needed when extracting opals from the surrounding rock, due to the fragility of the valuable stones. However you approach it, opal mining is hard and painstaking work, with no guarantee of success., though the miners will tell you that there’s no feeling quite like uncovering a new vein of gem opal. Love, rather than money, keeps many of the miners going.

Opal mining is not all just blind luck, though. There are strong geological indicators that the miners can look for that will give a clue of the right places to look. As well as following the trails of potch, fault lines in the surrounding rock can also strongly suggest that there may be a seam of valuable gem opal waiting to be discovered.

So in summary, to get to the good stuff, the prospectors combine hope, intuition, systematic methods and a lot of hard work.

Which brings us back to the beginning of this post. Is data mining of unstructured data the killer application for “Big Data”?

Well, I’d say that mining text data is pretty much the same story as mining for opals. To start with, there’s not much point to it unless you know what you’re looking for and why you’re looking for it. You’ll be a lot more successful if you start digging in the right areas to start with, which means doing your survey to ensure that there are at least basic indicators of some value to be extracted. Even then, there’s going to be an awful low of data mullock to sift through before you can happen upon any insight of any value. And even with all that in place, the current state of “Big Data” tools means that it’s still more of a craft than an industrial process, at least for the time being - so be prepared to dig by hand. 

So do your data survey first, know the value of what you're looking for, and look for the signs that you're in the right area. And even then, please be careful - it's all too easy to get hurt in the process!

Then, with a bit of luck, your “Big Data” applications might just help you shift some dirt.

Friday, 20 June 2014

Information Management Quote of the Week 20/06/14

"It's still magic, even if you know how it's done"

(Terry Pratchett, "A Hat Full of Sky")

See also:

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Dispelling the MDM Myth

Can we please put an end to starting with the technology?!

It’s not very often that I take issue with one individual person. But while flipping through my Twitter feed this week, Grandite’s Axel Troike put me onto this article: “MDM: Highly recommended, still misunderstood,” by Michele Goetz of research firm Forrester and published on Information-Management.com. And it kind of upset me.

Now to the casual reader not deeply versed in Information and Data Management practice, it probably comes across that "MDM" means - and ONLY means - "MDM Software System." To my mind, that's ambiguous at best, disingenuous at worst. Further, this core mistake is still being made by so many companies and people (e.g. as witnessed by Nicola Askham at this week’s BritishComputer Science Data Management Specialist event).

In my view, this is one of the key reasons for the failure of so many MDM projects. Master Data Management is a mindset, an architectural choice, an approach, a process, an organisational issue, a cultural consideration – all of the above (as are most other Information Management disciplines). In short, it's a very human problem.

How you execute your agenda to solve that problem may then be supported by a specific data management system – or not as the case may be.

Now, I’d expect such a narrow technology-centric point of view to be propagated by the software vendors themselves – they’re in business to sell you their products, after all! (I’m looking at you, IBM, Informatica, SAS, Oracle…) And disappointing though it may be, I’ll grudgingly accept that it makes a certain amount of short-term sense for those guys to be fast and loose with their marketing language and to imply that buying their software is going to be the end to addressing all of your problems. (Hint: it will be actually the START of addressing all your problems. Hey ho…)

But I’d expect much, much more from someone positioned as an expert commentator and industry analyst.

This isn’t the only time that Ms. Goetz has made this type of error either. In her blog post “Judgement Data for Data Quality”, she effectively implies a conflated position in respect of “Data Quality” to imply “Data Quality Tools.”

I’m not trying to suggest that there is a deliberately egregious intent on the part of Ms. Goetze or Forrester. But perhaps Forrester's overall perspective is unintentionally being skewed by their relationship with the major product vendors who subscribe to be included in the Wave analysis? Certainly, if you read her wider body of work, Ms. Goetz seems to have a good working knowledge of the broader issues of our industry and understands (at least at a high level) that the issues of information management, data governance and analytics go beyond the technological.

Context and perspective is everything and such articles do little to help set it. In highlighting these examples in particular, I’m aiming to illustrate a broader perspective that we need to be diligent in maintaining good editorial rigour to ensure that a holistic, human centric approach is at the heart of everything we do. Articles such as this one from CIO.com are in the ballpark, but they are still too few and too far between. There is still a huge and ongoing educational effort required to even get Information Management recognised as something that is different from, and complementary to, “I.T.”

Meanwhile, poorly framed pieces such as this let the readership down - and ultimately contribute to giving the whole Information and Data Management sector a bad rep.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Holding the Law in our hearts

A cultural perspective on better information

“Government-aku Law nyiringka ngarapai. Ananguku Law katangka munu kurunta ngarapai. Nganana Tjukurpa nyiringka tjunkupai wiya. Tjukurpa panaya tjamulu, mamalu, ngunytjulu nganananya ungu, kurunta munu katangka kanyintjaku.”

“Government law is written on paper. Anangu carry our law in our heads and in our souls. We don't put our Law onto paper. It was given to us by our grandfathers and grandmothers, out fathers and mothers, to hold into in our heads and in our hearts.”

My family and I have been travelling around Australia for the last 10 weeks as a sort of motor-home based Swan Song to our six-year stay in this country (we’re returning to the UK in July). There was so much of this magnificent country that we hadn’t yet visited, that we thought we should take the opportunity while we were still here. There’s certainly plenty to see, although there’s also an awful lot of in-between! (Be prepared for driving mile upon mile upon mile to get between places, especially once you leave the Eastern seaboard).

One of the most fascinating and awe-inspiring places that we’ve been to on this trip is Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park. Uluru is the Aboriginal Australian name for Ayer’s Rock, a 348m high, 9.4km girth outcrop and an iconic image representing the heart of the Australian desert. Uluru is certainly a place that should be a “must visit” on anyone’s Bucket List. I promise you, nothing can prepare you for the awe-inspiring size and beauty of the place until you see it for yourself! Kata Tjuta (or the Olgas, to give them their English name) features 36 rock domes reaching up to 200m higher that Uluru and is another spectacular natural feature and in their own way are just as jaw-dropping. Dawn and dusk are special times at both of these natural wonders, with their the ever-changing colours and iridescence.

While visiting the Uluru Cultural Centre, I was touched by the statement that I’ve quoted at the start of this post, made by the local Aboriginal people of the Anangu tribe who are the traditional owners of the lands around Uluru.

My former colleague at the UNSW, Robert Phipps, also reminded me that there is a similar sentiment expressed in the Judeo-Christian Bible:

 "This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord, I will put My laws into their hearts, and in their minds will I write them." (Heb. 10:16)

The Anangu expression of worth for their Law, and the belief that it forms a behavioural practice which people live and feel, rather than rules to follow, put me in mind of what we might aspire to in terms of an information culture. It shouldn’t be a case of requiring policies, processes, standards and procedures in order to get our data right. (and let’s be honest, who ever refers to the written-down rules anyway?!) 

Instead, it’s a behavioural thing that inherently permeates all aspects of our work being, ingrained into people’s natures and as an integral part of their role. Data quality and data value isn't something that's consciously dealt with, because it simply comes out innately -  that’s what we expect of each other and as part of being a working community. To do anything else is to let yourself and others down.

I think we’re probably still a long, long way from achieving that aspiration (if we ever get there, then my work here is done!). But that shouldn't stop us from trying. In the meantime, I will continue to take every opportunity to discuss the benefit and value of a data-driven and analytical approach to business decision-making.

I hope you shall too.