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Could Big Data Have Saved Ancient Civilizations?

David Jonker

The burning of the Ancient Library of Alexandria has come to symbolize the tragedy of irretrievably losing valuable cultural information and knowledge. The Egyptian center of scholarship was one of the largest and most important libraries of the ancient world, standing from its construction in the 3rd century BC until the Romans conquered Egypt in 30 BC.

In those days, much of the known world’s recorded knowledge was kept in the library. Today, our information is decentralized across huge regions, and thanks to digital technology, there is a lot more of it. So much more, in fact, that it’s been theorized that every last papyrus scroll in the vast Library of Alexandria could now fit onto an ordinary flash drive.

Ninety percent of the world’s data has been created in the last two years. According to the documentary The Human Face of Big Data (shown worldwide as part of SAP’s Our Digital Future film series), the typical person in the Western world is now exposed to as much data in one day as someone in the 15th century would have seen in their entire life.

For convenience, we call this phenomenon Big Data. We won’t always call it that. The term denotes something still new and exciting. Since the recent explosion of data generation, there hasn’t yet been time to scrape the surface of its potential to inform decisions.

There is such an abundance of data that we don’t yet know if it will actually hinder us more than help us. We could be suffering from debilitating information overload. Big Data and digital technology are moving us into totally uncharted territory. We’re just beginning to understand how we can use all that data to improve the world and human lives.

Rather than just feeling smug about its ability to help us live better, we have to also be wary of following a path of self-destruction. We can’t simply dismiss doomsday believers as “negative” or “gloomy” thinkers.

The Library of Alexandria was the ancient world’s attempt at Big Data, making full use of the technology of the day. You can be sure the great minds of the day were scrutinizing the library’s “data” to make intellectual connections, further human knowledge, and preserve and advance their civilization.

Little did they know at the time, their efforts were in vain; that the conquering Roman Empire would undo centuries of work invested into the library’s body of knowledge. Little did the Romans know, emperors’ squabbles and decadence would eventually lead to their downfall. Every ancient civilization collapsed for some reason or another (though never just one reason).

The world of today, however, is very different. We are in an age of independent states, rather than empires, and because of modern technology we are fast moving towards a global civilization. The fall of our global civilization would be a terminal disaster for the entire world.

The Human Face of Big Data spends some time discussing how we can get out of the problems we’ve made. Climate change, overpopulation, conflict over finite resources, invasive species, nuclear instability – it would be foolish to think any of these problems or threats will solve themselves or never occur.

As we tackle these problems with the help of Big Data, can we dare to dream that our global civilization will be the first that doesn’t unwittingly destroy itself? Can we ever be sure our actions won’t lead to our collapse? To begin answering these questions, let’s look back at a few ancient civilizations (chiefly by way of Jared Diamond’s excellent book Collapse), consider how they collapsed, and think about how Big Data might have saved them…

Greenland Norse Vikings

In AD 984, Vikings settled in Greenland, and by 1450 they had died out. They inadvertently caused soil erosion and deforestation, which meant they weren’t able to make the charcoal they needed to support themselves as an Iron Age society. Dwindling trade with neighboring mother country Norway didn’t help the Vikings either, nor did their hostile relationship with the Eskimos with whom they shared Greenland. Those Eskimos may have blocked Norse access to the outer fjords, which they depended on for seals.

What if the Vikings had the Big Data we have today? They might have built a vast sensor network feeding into a database system that measured how much deforestation they could safely carry out. They might have used insight from data to figure out how to share fjord access with the Eskimos harmoniously, while mapping an efficient trade route around the sea ice separating Norway and Greenland.

Easter Islanders

Out of hundreds of islands in the Pacific Ocean, none has suffered a case of deforestation as severe as that which destroyed the civilization on Easter Island in the 1600s. Jared Diamond has called it “the clearest example of a society that destroyed itself by over-exploiting its own resources.” A combination of environmental factors led to the deforestation, but on such a small island, how could the Easter Islanders not have seen what they were doing? Diamond asked, “what did they say when they were cutting down the last palm tree?” In the future, people might be asking the same about us.

With Big Data, the civilization might have been able to identify and address problems caused by volcanic activity, latitude, rainfall patterns, and the lack of “continental dust from Asia” that protects the Pacific islands by restoring soil fertility.

Indus Valley Civilization

The largest of the early urban civilizations, the Indus once covered more than a million square kilometers and may have accounted for 10% of the world’s population. After a period of stability and great technological advancement, when the civilization’s rivers flooded adequately to support farming, climate change caused the floods to dry up, and the cities had to be abandoned.

We can’t imagine that happening in today’s developed cities, in an age where the likes of Buenos Aries have sensor networks monitoring and controlling the flow and pressure of their entire water supply. Even if natural climate change did make a region uninhabitable over time, we’d surely have the foresight to know it was coming.

If Big Data is to save our global civilization, achieving something our ancestors didn’t, it will depend on more than just data. If Big Data really does have the potential to solve civilization-ending problems, our fate will depend on humans acting on insights.

The most urgent problems facing today’s global civilization are of our own making. There are many things we still don’t understand, and many things we haven’t started or stopped doing to solve these problems. Big Data will be crucial in helping us change that. Unlike ancient civilizations, digital technology can ensure our future.

Get more insight on how cities are using data to build a better future in Smarter Cities: Future Metropolis and Societal Impact.

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David Jonker

About David Jonker

David Jonker is the Senior Director of Product Marketing at SAP. He leads Big Data go-to-market initiatives including SAP’s solutions in data management, analytics, and Big Data enabled applications, and across critical industries and lines of business.

Removing Bias From Digitization Brings Economic Opportunity For All

Shelly Dutton

Conventional wisdom tells us that all of us encounter change. Some people fully embrace it as a new beginning and use it to create something positive or even life-changing. Others fight it along the way. And a vast majority accept the change – but only on their terms.

No matter where you fall, it is increasingly difficult to ignore how various faction of our global society views change.

Populist movements are emerging all over the world, fueled by populations that are not economically uplifted by the opportunities of the digital economy. And one look at news headlines over the last decade justifies such sentiments. For example, many companies are focused on simplifying and shortening supply chains. Automation is making production location and outsourcing decisions no longer dependent on labor costs. The possibilities of 3D printing could potentially decrease the need to ship goods across long distances.

In a recent interview with Handelsblatt Global, Bill McDermott, CEO of SAP, acknowledged that more must be done to show how everyone – of any level of education, industry, and demographic – can fit in a world of globalization and digitization.

“Governments can no longer ignore them,” he observed. “Countries need to consider how to usher a large chunk of the workforce into a modern economy.”

Even though businesses are investing in technology to automate tasks that were formerly carried out by workers, McDermott believes that some jobs can never be improved by a machine or robot. However, political and business leaders still need to do more to alleviate fears of job loss and an unemployable future.

“Clearly, we are going need new forms of training and education, and companies can play an important role in that process,” McDermott shared.

Employees have a right to understand how technology will power a progression present work situation to a future of opportunity, promise, and prosperity. Businesses have an obligation to impart knowledge and guidance to their employees and a clear, sustainable, and achievable road map of their digital strategy. Ultimately, leadership teams need to side with their workforce and do everything in their power to help ensure their success.

Once the executive team and its employees of all levels and responsibilities are engaged in the business’ digital direction, the future is full of immense potential. McDermott uses his own workforce as an example of the possibilities, “We have 22,000 brilliant developers, the greatest in the world. We just needed to unleash their potential and set them on the topics that matter most. We don’t need to buy any small startup to reach our goals.”

For the entire interview with Bill McDermott, read the Handelsblatt Global article, “Computers Don’t Have a Bias.”

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Refugee Code Week: Programming A Future Perspective

SAP News Center

Refugee Code Week opens up new perspectives for refugees and displaced youth throughout the Middle East.

“Come in!” Nisreen’s father says cheerfully, as he invites us in from the dusty street. Inside his small house, the air is cool and smells of fresh tea. The tiny rooms are clean and lovingly decorated. Grandmother and niece are already waiting for us in the living room. It looks almost like their home in Syria did before the war, they tell us. Outside, laughing children play tag. It’s a little paradise they have created for themselves here.

But not all is as it seems at first glance: Nisreen Abu-Salou, 37, is a Syrian refugee, and the walls of the house are made of sheet metal. She and her father live there alone, her mother having since returned to Syria to Nisreen’s brothers and sisters. They have no idea how the rest of the family is doing. Contact with the outside world is only possible sporadically. Nisreen’s new “home” is Al Zaatari, a refugee camp in Jordan. It is the largest refugee camp in the Middle East, and with 80,000 inhabitants, the second largest in the world.

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Nisreen Abu-Salou with her family

Back in Syria, she worked as a teacher and taught children from grade five up to graduation. Her curiosity for all things new was her constant companion. Her eyes light up just reminiscing about it. And now she has the chance to learn programming.

Nisreen has been taking part in Refugee Code Week, an initiative sponsored by SAP in collaboration with the United Nations Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and Galway Education Center. The aim of the project is to introduce refugees in the Middle East to the basics of computer programming. The courses were held in Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, and Turkey.

Skills for now and the future

There are currently millions of refugees of all ages stuck in camps throughout war zones and hosting countries. Despite their wide range of skills and qualifications, most of these people have no choice but to idle away the day. For children, the biggest issue is the lack of access to education, especially beyond the elementary level.

The IT industry in this region, on the other hand, needs highly trained specialists to drive digital transformation and help secure the region’s long-term economic growth. Saudi Arabia alone already had a shortfall of some 30,000 IT professionals. Meanwhile, it is estimated that businesses and governments will invest around $260 billion in IT in the Middle East and Africa (MEA) in 2016 alone.

So what could be more obvious than to tap that tremendous motivation of the refugees – especially of the girls – and invest in a better future, right here and now?

The results

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Together with 33 partners, this event was able to equip 10,200 participants with coding skills. This infographic gives a detailed overview of the achievements during Refugee Code Week 2016.


The impact of the initiative is particularly evident in the camps nearest the Syrian border in Jordan. Take Amnah, for example, a 12-year-old girl also from the Al Zaatari camp. She says that learning with the special Scratch software is very easy “and a lot of fun, too.”

Some women in the program are students; others are teachers, such as 21-year old Rana. She sees this project as a unique opportunity for girls to shape their future and to develop a perspective, even in a seemingly hopeless environment such as theirs. Participants were taught in groups aged 8 to 11 years and 12 to 17 years. Free online courses were also offered to those who were unable to attend on-site.

Training for hundreds of teachers

The students didn’t just benefit from the pedagogical and didactical quality of the Scratch teaching program, which is very practice-oriented and thus capable of maintaining the learners’ enthusiasm even through the phases of dry theory. They also benefited from the high level of motivation of their teachers. 2,439 teachers have been trained by experts and supported by numerous volunteers. And they are not only coming from the refugee communities; volunteers also come from the host countries who will also forward their new digital knowledge to local youth.

“Hence the importance of ‘Train-the-Trainer’ events, where master instructors empower both refugees and local youth to become the next expert coding teachers,” explains Claire Gillissen-Duval, director of SAP Corporate Social Responsibility for EMEA and global lead of Africa and Refugee Code Weeks. “Leveraging freely accessible materials and teaching tools, Train-the-Trainer events provide a sound, replicable structure for inter-group knowledge sharing, unlocking the potential of people to serve as resources for each other.”

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Children living at Al Zaatari

The entire model builds on the success of Africa Code Week. In its second year now, the event, together with hundreds of partners, passed on coding skills to 427,000 children, teenagers, and young adults in Africa. Many of those participants now have career perspectives they never would have dreamed possible before. This is also the experience of the 10,200 participants of Refugee Code Week: Whether as employees in companies or as freelancers: their skills are in demand and can be used anywhere in the world – especially, of course, in their home countries, where they hope to be soon able to return and support economic recovery.

Direct from school to career

For some of the Refugee Code Week participants, the dream of a career becomes true even sooner. The 90 best “Master Class” students are selected to participate in a special “bootcamp” training program from non-profit partner RBK (formerly ReBootKamp). Of these, at least 30 can look forward to a job offer from the partner network upon completion.

Fatima Himmamy has already participated in a RBK training. The 26-year-old from Aleppo, who has already completed a four-year computer studies program, describes the initiative as one of the best experiences of her life. Being a teacher in the project is much more than just a job to her, though. It has given her a different perspective and has changed her life in the camp.

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Fatima Himmamy

The project has given her new drive, and lots of satisfaction, because passing her knowledge to other women and girls is a cause that’s particularly dear to her heart. “I love what I’m doing here,” she says.

Refugee Code Week demonstrates how people – even those in need – can turn potential opportunities into a better future. In the end, it all comes down to determination. And when it comes to determination, the participating girls and women are in a class of their own.

For more stories of how technology education can turn young lives around, see Bringing New Educational Opportunities To Rwandan Youth.

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How Emotionally Aware Computing Can Bring Happiness to Your Organization

Christopher Koch


Do you feel me?

Just as once-novel voice recognition technology is now a ubiquitous part of human–machine relationships, so too could mood recognition technology (aka “affective computing”) soon pervade digital interactions.

Through the application of machine learning, Big Data inputs, image recognition, sensors, and in some cases robotics, artificially intelligent systems hunt for affective clues: widened eyes, quickened speech, and crossed arms, as well as heart rate or skin changes.




Emotions are big business

The global affective computing market is estimated to grow from just over US$9.3 billion a year in 2015 to more than $42.5 billion by 2020.

Source: “Affective Computing Market 2015 – Technology, Software, Hardware, Vertical, & Regional Forecasts to 2020 for the $42 Billion Industry” (Research and Markets, 2015)

Customer experience is the sweet spot

Forrester found that emotion was the number-one factor in determining customer loyalty in 17 out of the 18 industries it surveyed – far more important than the ease or effectiveness of customers’ interactions with a company.


Source: “You Can’t Afford to Overlook Your Customers’ Emotional Experience” (Forrester, 2015)


Humana gets an emotional clue

Source: “Artificial Intelligence Helps Humana Avoid Call Center Meltdowns” (The Wall Street Journal, October 27, 2016)

Insurer Humana uses artificial intelligence software that can detect conversational cues to guide call-center workers through difficult customer calls. The system recognizes that a steady rise in the pitch of a customer’s voice or instances of agent and customer talking over one another are causes for concern.

The system has led to hard results: Humana says it has seen an 28% improvement in customer satisfaction, a 63% improvement in agent engagement, and a 6% improvement in first-contact resolution.


Spread happiness across the organization

Source: “Happiness and Productivity” (University of Warwick, February 10, 2014)

Employers could monitor employee moods to make organizational adjustments that increase productivity, effectiveness, and satisfaction. Happy employees are around 12% more productive.




Walking on emotional eggshells

Whether customers and employees will be comfortable having their emotions logged and broadcast by companies is an open question. Customers may find some uses of affective computing creepy or, worse, predatory. Be sure to get their permission.


Other limiting factors

The availability of the data required to infer a person’s emotional state is still limited. Further, it can be difficult to capture all the physical cues that may be relevant to an interaction, such as facial expression, tone of voice, or posture.



Get a head start


Discover the data

Companies should determine what inferences about mental states they want the system to make and how accurately those inferences can be made using the inputs available.


Work with IT

Involve IT and engineering groups to figure out the challenges of integrating with existing systems for collecting, assimilating, and analyzing large volumes of emotional data.


Consider the complexity

Some emotions may be more difficult to discern or respond to. Context is also key. An emotionally aware machine would need to respond differently to frustration in a user in an educational setting than to frustration in a user in a vehicle.

 


 

download arrowTo learn more about how affective computing can help your organization, read the feature story Empathy: The Killer App for Artificial Intelligence.


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Christopher Koch

About Christopher Koch

Christopher Koch is the Editorial Director of the SAP Center for Business Insight. He is an experienced publishing professional, researcher, editor, and writer in business, technology, and B2B marketing. Share your thoughts with Chris on Twitter @Ckochster.

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In An Agile Environment, Revenue Models Are Flexible Too

Todd Wasserman

In 2012, Dollar Shave Club burst on the scene with a cheeky viral video that won praise for its creativity and marketing acumen. Less heralded at the time was the startup’s pricing model, which swapped traditional retail for subscriptions.

For as low as $1 a month (for five two-bladed cartridges), consumers got a package in the mail that saved them a trip to the pharmacy or grocery store. Dollar Shave Club received the ultimate vindication for the idea in 2016 when Unilever purchased the company for $1 billion.

As that example shows, new technology creates the possibility for new pricing models that can disrupt existing industries. The same phenomenon has occurred in software, in which the cloud and Web-based interfaces have ushered in Software as a Service (SaaS), which charges users on a monthly basis, like a utility, instead of the typical purchase-and-later-upgrade model.

Pricing, in other words, is a variable that can be used to disrupt industries. Other options include usage-based pricing and freemium.

Products as services, services as products

There are basically two ways that businesses can use pricing to disrupt the status quo: Turn products into services and turn services into products. Dollar Shave Club and SaaS are two examples of turning products into services.

Others include Amazon’s Dash, a bare-bones Internet of Things device that lets consumers reorder items ranging from Campbell’s Soup to Play-Doh. Another example is Rent the Runway, which rents high-end fashion items for a weekend rather than selling the items. Trunk Club offers a twist on this by sending items picked out by a stylist to users every month. Users pay for what they want and send back the rest.

The other option is productizing a service. Restaurant franchising is based on this model. While the restaurant offers food service to consumers, for entrepreneurs the franchise offers guidance and brand equity that can be condensed into a product format. For instance, a global HR firm called Littler has productized its offerings with Littler CaseSmart-Charges, which is designed for in-house attorneys and features software, project management tools, and access to flextime attorneys.

As that example shows, technology offers opportunities to try new revenue models. Another example is APIs, which have become a large source of revenue for companies. The monetization of APIs is often viewed as a side business that encompasses a wholly different pricing model that’s often engineered to create huge user bases with volume discounts.

Not a new idea

Though technology has opened up new vistas for businesses seeking alternate pricing models, Rajkumar Venkatesan, a marketing professor at University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, points out that this isn’t necessarily a new idea. For instance, King Gillette made his fortune in the early part of the 20th Century by realizing that a cheap shaving device would pave the way for a recurring revenue stream via replacement razor blades.

“The new variation was the Keurig,” said Venkatesan, referring to the coffee machine that relies on replaceable cartridges. “It has started becoming more prevalent in the last 10 years, but the fundamental model has been there.” For businesses, this can be an attractive model not only for the recurring revenue but also for the ability to cross-sell new goods to existing customers, Venkatesan said.

Another benefit to a subscription model is that it can also supply first-party data that companies can use to better understand and market to their customers. Some believe that Dollar Shave Club’s close relationship with its young male user base was one reason for Unilever’s purchase, for instance. In such a cut-throat market, such relationships can fetch a high price.

To learn more about how you can monetize disruption, watch this video overview of the new SAP Hybris Revenue Cloud.

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