Archive for January, 2015

The Power of the Intelligence Revolution

Saturday, January 31st, 2015

I’m continuing here to share a series of articles I’ve written over the past several months for Christian Computing magazine on the Intelligence Revolution.

Every new technology introduces new capabilities that enable us to do things that previously weren’t possible or practical. As technologists, our job is to capture this new power for our organization. But every new technology also creates new potentials that represent risk to ourselves, our families, and the organizations that we serve. As technologists, we are also called on to manage this danger. In this post I’d like to explore the power that is available from this Intelligence Revolution, and in the next I’ll address the danger.

Setting the Context

When I think, write, or speak about the major technology revolutions, I usually say things like “this revolutionized how we, as individuals, interact with the world around us, and fundamentally transformed how organizations/businesses operate.”

In hindsight, it is easy to look back and see how the introduction of the personal computer transformed how churches and ministries operate. It is similarly easy to see how the Internet has transformed how churches and ministries operate.

When we look at the Mobility Revolution, it is easy to see how mobility has revolutionized how we, and those we serve, interact with the world, but the examples of how mobility has transformed how churches and ministries operate are harder to find. I don’t believe that is because the Mobility Revolution is less transformative for Christian organizations than it is for the business community. Rather, I think it’s a reflection of the limited resources that those of us in ministry are working with, and the greater challenge we have in making investments in new technologies compared to businesses who can easily calculate the ROI (return on investment). As the technology becomes more ubiquitous, and the cost of implementing it comes down, and the expectations of those we serve that we are leveraging the technology increase, in time I believe that mobility will be as transformative for our churches and ministries as it has been for most businesses and industries.

In the same way, and perhaps even more so, I believe that it will be many years before the Intelligence Revolution has a transformative impact on how our churches and ministries operate. However, the impact on ourselves, our families, and those we serve will be much more immediate and, in fact, is happening today. With that as context, this article will deal more with how the power of the Intelligence Revolution plays out in the relationships between businesses and us as individuals. I believe that, in time, these same relational impacts will play out between our ministries and those we serve, so perhaps this article can plant a future vision for how your ministry can capture the power.

What Power Does the Intelligence Revolution Unleash?

At its core, the Intelligence Revolution is about having more information and being able to do more with it. Data scientists probe, manipulate, correlate, and analyze vast amounts of information from a variety of sources to extract “actionable insights.” What do I mean by “actionable insights?” I mean new understandings of reality (insights) that can lead to decisions to take action in order to accomplish our objectives.

Each business exists to provide a product or service that people want or need. While the most measurable objectives for a business are financial (e.g. revenues and profits), these objectives are only sustainably met when the business is doing a great job of meeting its customers’ needs and desires. Therefore, the real power of the Intelligence Revolution is achieved when a business analyzes data to gain new understandings of reality in order to better serve their customers. When that happens, it’s a win for the business and a win for us, their customer.

As a very simple example (with a lot of complexity behind it), when I turn on my television, I have hundreds of channels and thousands of shows (over the next 24 hours) to choose from. It is overwhelming to me to find something I want to watch. As a result, I only turn on the television when I know there’s something on that I want to watch (in my case, that’s usually a sporting event). Even then, it is a struggle to browse through all those channels looking for my show.

However, data exists that could dramatically improve this product for me. Out of the hundreds of available channels, there are probably fewer than a dozen that I have watched in the past year. Of the thousands of shows, those that I have watched have a very limited set of characteristics (maybe 60% sports, 30% news, and 10% movies or other entertainment), and the specifics within each of those fields could be narrowly defined (favorite sports, leagues, teams) simply by observing my behaviors.

Similarly, data exists that indicates with whom I associate (Facebook friends; e-mail, text, and telephone conversations; organizational associations, etc.). And the data exists to indicate what these people generally watch and what they are watching right now. Also similarly, it is relatively simple to identify other people who like to watch the same things I do, and to identify what other things these people watch and what they are watching right now.

This isn’t much of a stretch from what many companies do today. Amazon recommends products to me based on what others that have similar tastes as mine have bought and recommended. LinkedIn recommends contacts to me based on common associations. TripAdvisor recommends hotels to me based on what my Facebook friends enjoyed.

Theoretically, when I turn on the television, the Intelligence Revolution should allow my cable company to present to me the very small number of shows that I might actually want to watch, rather than forcing me to wade through a sea of unpalatable choices in hopes of finding a hidden gem.

Although the above example appeals to me as a consumer, it is important to point out that the Intelligence Revolution is most clearly playing out today in industries where the consumer is not the paying customer, but rather is the product. Security expert Bruce Schneier may have been the first to make the point that – if you aren’t paying for a product/service, then you aren’t the customer, you are the product.

Google and Facebook are examples of companies that do a great job of making billions of dollars in profits by translating the information they have about their users (us) to provide a more valuable service (often targeted advertising) to their paying customers. To be fair to these companies, they actually have what is called a “two sided business model.” Although we are the product, it is critical that they keep us happy so that we keep coming back in order to sell our “eyeballs” to their advertisers. Both these companies do a great job of using “actionable insights” to improve the quality of their service to us, their end users. Google’s search algorithms are a great example of how the Intelligence Revolution has already transformed the way that we, as individuals, interact with the world around us.

In time, it is my hope that Christian churches and ministries will find ethical and God-honoring ways to leverage “big data” to better serve those around us and to advance God’s kingdom here on earth.

What is the Intelligence Revolution

Tuesday, January 20th, 2015

In my last post I briefly introduced the Intelligence Revolution and put it in the context of the broader Information Age – following behind and building upon the Digital Revolution, the Internet Revolution, and the Mobile/Social Revolution. This month, I’d like to more thoroughly explain what this new revolution is. In coming posts, we’ll look at the new power and the new danger represented by this revolution.

A Brief Review

The Digital Revolution is often referred to as the PC or Microprocessor revolution, because the Microsoft-Intel-IBM personal computer ushered in this new era where computing power moved out of the data center, onto the desktop, and eventually into virtually every product with a power supply. However, the long term implications of this era of the information age stem from the fact that these changes enabled virtually everything in the physical world to be digitized – to be accurately represented as ones and zeros that were easy to store, copy, and manipulate.

The Internet Revolution is most notable for making it easy for that digital information to flow across boundaries – between individuals, families, companies, and countries. Among other things, this meant that information could easily be shared with others, and information from different domains could be combined to create new information.

The Mobile/Social Revolution enabled everything and everyone to be connected digitally all the time. We are growing increasingly comfortable sharing information about ourselves online in fairly public ways. Meanwhile objects around us are constantly collecting information and bringing it into the cloud – from weather stations to security cameras to car engines.

What is Big Data Analytics?

Over the past few years, a new discipline has started to emerge called Big Data Analytics. You’ve probably heard of it and you may have some idea of what it is, but unless it’s become part of your job description, I’m guessing it’s still a pretty nebulous concept to you.

Admittedly, the definitions in the industry are still swirling a bit, but I found Timo Elliot’s blog post on “7 Definitions of Big Data You Should Know About” very helpful. He starts with a 12-year old definition that describes Big Data as representing the combination of Volume, Velocity, and Variety of data. He then introduces the new technologies that have made it cost-effective to deal with high volume, high velocity data from a wide variety of sources, most notably Hadoop and NoSQL. He goes on to point out that we previously primarily dealt with data about transactions, but now we are also analyzing interactions (e.g. web page clicks) and observations (data collected automatically by connected devices). He describes making decisions based on transactional data as “managing out of the rear view mirror” but that interactions and observations can “signal” things that are likely to happen in the future. He closes his piece with a couple of analogies – “dark data” (data that we previously ignored because of technical limitations) and big data providing a “nervous system” for the planet.

Although that collection of definitions fails to provide a single crisp, clear, and comprehensive definition of big data analytics, hopefully it gives you a good sense for what is happening. Because we are on our computers and on our smartphones all the time, doing stuff and sharing stuff, each of us has become a data factory churning out massive amounts of information about ourselves and the world around us. Likewise because the objects around us are increasingly observing themselves and the world around them, collecting those observations, and then bringing those observations into the cloud, we are surrounded by data factories. Technology now enables all of that information to be stored, correlated, and analyzed to create new insights that can create value for someone.

Some of those “someone’s” scare us. The revelations by Ed Snowden about NSA surveillance programs was a wake up call that governments are putting tremendous computing power to work in ways we could never have previously imagined.

Some of those “someone’s” may bother us. Clearly, advertisers have much to gain by being able to more accurately target who sees their ads and when they see them. Nissan’s marketing dollars are best spent if they can put a compelling offer in front of someone who has a preference for Japanese automakers while they are in the process of considering their next car purchase. On one hand, we prefer to see ads that are relevant to us. On the other hand, it’s pretty creepy when advertisers are using big data analytics, based on information we didn’t realize was public, to put ads in front of our eyes.

But, to be honest, we probably welcome some of those “someone’s.” My ESPN mobile app already knows that the Kansas City Royals are my favorite baseball team (because I told it so). And because of that, when I open the app, I see the Royals score and their latest news. However, I look forward to the day when that app will also know that I’ve set up my DVR to record the game and to not provide notifications each time the Royals or their opponent scores!

The Next Revolution Defined

With all that as context, here’s my working definition for the Intelligence Revolution: “The Intelligence Revolution will help us better understand the world around us; will improve our decision making to enhance our health, safety, and peace of mind; and will enable companies to better serve us based on the correlation and analysis of data from the interrelation of people, things, and content.”

Of course, my definition paints this revolution in the most positive manner possible, and hints at the “power” of this revolution. I think it’s obvious there are many “dangers” as well. We’ll talk about the power and the danger, as well as the barriers for this revolution, starting in my next post.

The Next Revolution

Wednesday, January 14th, 2015

I wrote this article last August for Christian Computing magazine as the first in a series. This month I’m wrapping up the series, so thought it was timely to start sharing the articles here. I hope you enjoy. In a recent press release celebrating 25 years of publication, Christian Computing described themselves this way: CCMag is the foremost Christian publication to provide information about constantly changing technology tools and how they could apply to church business and ministry.

Last month I was asked to give the keynote address at the Nemertes Navigator 360 event near Tampa, Florida. The topic of my talk was “The Next Revolution” and I’d like to take the next few months of my column space to talk about what I see coming and how it may impact our churches and ministries. When I talk about the “Next” revolution, I’m talking about the fourth technology revolution in our current information age.

So, what were the first three revolutions?

Arguably, the information age could be said to date to the invention of the telephone in 1876 or the electric telegraph in the 1830s, or even back to Gutenberg’s press in the 1450s. All of these are incredible inventions that radically transformed how we interact with the world around us (especially information) and how businesses operate. However, since this is Christian Computing magazine, I will focus on the information age spawned by the advancement of computer technology.

The first revolution is sometimes called the PC Revolution, or more accurately the Microprocessor Revolution. This focus on the computer itself is understandable. Driven by the exponential improvements in processing power density and cost reflected in Moore’s Law, computers moved from filling a room, to sitting on a desk, to being built into virtually everything with a power supply. However, I think the real revolution was in what those technology advances enabled, so I refer to this first revolution as the Digital Revolution. The truly world-changing transformation that began with the Digital Revolution was the digitization of the world. Prior to this revolution, the real world existed in physical form that we could only perceive with our senses. Through this revolution, the real world was captured as ones and zeros. Music, and images, and videos, and books, and financial transactions, and weather measurements, and vital signs all became data that could easily be stored, copied, and manipulated.

The second revolution is known as the Internet Revolution, and this is appropriate. While the name Internet describes a vast collection of inter-connected computer networks, the transformational change follows directly from that inter-networking. The Internet revolution made it easy for digital information to cross boundaries. Before broad adoption of the Internet, it was hard to move data from one company to another, or from one family to another. Companies could pay for proprietary Electronic Data Interchange network connectivity and work through complex implementation plans to connect with other companies, and individuals could copy up to 1.4MB onto a floppy disk and carry it to their neighbor (sneaker-net), but virtually overnight, the Internet made it easy for data to flow. Now, it was not only easy for the real world to be digitized, stored, copied, and manipulated, but also transported and shared. The launch of Napster in 1999, and it’s rapid growth in popularity, sent a wake up call to all industries that the world had changed.

Some people see the mobile and social revolutions as distinct. I see them as one integral Mobile/Social Revolution. Neither could have had as significant of an impact without the other. This revolution enabled all people, things, and content to be connected all the time and everywhere. Consider the impact that the combination of the smartphone and social networks like Facebook has had on photography. We take pictures we never would’ve taken before. We enjoy our own pictures in new ways, rarely printing them. We also share our photos differently, no longer laboring to put them in a physical photo album. Finally, our friends have a much better experience enjoying the photos we share because they control how they view them and they can join in a dialog about the pictures in real time with far flung friends around the world. In the same way, as wireless connectivity gets integrated into virtually every product with a power supply, the ways in which we interact with those products and with each other will continue to be transformed.

What impact have these revolutions had on the church?

Each of these revolutions have significantly impacted the church. As the Digital Revolution rolled onto our desktops, our churches learned to become more efficient, digitizing the people, relationships, ministries, and transactions that organically defined each local body of believers. The entire church management software industry was born. Bible software started to appear, so pastors and lay people could more thoroughly and efficiently search the Word. And of course, this publication itself was on the forefront preceding all of these advances. The Internet Revolution brought church websites, Sermon Audio, and Bible Gateway, amongst other advances. In the Mobile/Social Revolution, iPads and Facebook have transformed how we interact with the Bible and other content, and how we interact with each other in Christian community. The YouVersion Bible App has been installed nearly 150 million times on smartphones and tablets. Church Management solutions have gone mobile and social, engaging the congregation.

In general, I’d say that churches tend to move a little slower in adopting technology, although some churches are always on the leading edge, but clearly each of these revolutions has advanced our ability to know God and to serve Him, wherever we go. Obviously each of these revolutions has also brought new “dangers” into the church and into our congregations. The duty of the church is to determine how best to capture the power of the technology while managing the danger and limiting its negative impact on the church and our people. As we consider the next revolution, I believe this will be particularly challenging.

What is the next revolution?

I refer to the next revolution as the Intelligence Revolution. It incorporates buzzworthy elements such as cloud computing and big data analytics to enable organizations to better serve their constituents. We will begin to explore this next revolution in next month’s column.

It is my hope and prayer that these articles will encourage you in your daily walk with Christ. As 1 Peter 4:10 teaches us “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace.”

Too Mobile?

Tuesday, January 13th, 2015

I know… I said I would be posting more and I haven’t. I’m sorry. Even this post is something I meant to post in late December and am just now getting around to it. My hope is to start posting some content I’ve written over the past couple of years that I think would be interesting to everyone here.

But for now, let me observe on how this mobility revolution thing is working out for me.

December is a time of year when I do a lot of work with photos. My favorite site for this kinda thing is Shutterfly. Every year we use them for our Christmas cards, and then I make a bunch of personalized calendars as gifts. The last few years I’ve also been making Christmas tree ornaments to capture the main events of the year so each year when we decorate the tree we can be reminded of the wonderful memories from past years.

Anyway, all of this means that during December I ask people to e-mail me photos to use in gifts for particular people. This year is the first year that I’ve noticed that everyone embracing mobility has really caused a problem for me. You see, when someone e-mails me a picture, then I get it on my computer. I can store it in the right folder. Perhaps do some editing, if necessary. Then upload it to Shutterfly for use in the project.

This year, several times, I was frustrated because I asked people to e-mail me photos, but instead they texted them to me. Of course, I’m not surprised that the photos I asked for were sitting on their smartphones, since that’s pretty much the only camera the vast majority of us use anymore. But when I ask someone to e-mail me a picture, and it seems to me that it is just as easy to e-mail as it is to text, and multiple people text me the picture instead, then that is telling. It seems to me a strong indication that we are well into the post-PC era. (BTW – these are not tech early adopters, these are clearly mainstream tech users.) Mobile devices have replaced our desktop devices. We apparently have also entered the post-email era. (BTW – these are not millennials I’m talking about either, each of the people who texted me photos instead of e-mailing them is roughly my age.)

My frustration stems from how much harder it is for me to get the photos into my routine when they are texted to me, but my fascination stems from watching how the mobility revolution has impacted basic behaviors of mainstream consumers. It’s amazing how fast we adopt and adapt.