Statistical Data Analysis

Microsoft's Coplin Sees Dividends in New Search Frontiers

Rejoicing in the terrific job title of ‘chief envisioneering officer’ at Microsoft, Dave Coplin is one of the most interesting and affable commentators on the crossroads where information and computation meet communications and usefulness. Despite being a techie, Coplin is a proponent of the democratising of technology and a believer in the application of computers to change the ways we live and work. He has just written a piece for IDG Connect on Big Data and the revelations to be gained from delving deeper into internet search information. To talk a little more about this and other matters, I caught up with him by phone last week.

Despite the rise of companies like Splunk, growth in use of Hadoop, Cassandra and other Big Data enablers, as well as the ubiquity of internet search, Coplin tells me that he believes we’re only just scratching the veneer of what data can be applied to.

“I still think we need to wake people up to the potential of data and insights into how people live their lives,” he says. “The tools are getting more accessible. Remember what it was like 15 years ago to write a formula in Excel when you needed to be a PhD? Today with Power BI you can run a natural-language query against as unstructured data set, ask questions like ‘tell me who sold the most in the last three months?’ No longer do I need to be a DBA or data admin. And over time those tools are going to get bigger, stronger.”

So the technology engines are becoming more powerful, there is more data being generated than ever and usability is much improved - but there are still softer issues to be explored.

“Technology is one thing, but I worry more about the people who use it,” Coplin says. “You give them more data and they’re looking down at their boots. But that belittles the true potential data offers to them.”

That lag between having the tools and data and then doing something useful with them means that too often we miss out on the power of data to create new business models, make commercial assets of information and connect to other datasets for multiplied value.

Coplin contends that “magic happens when you connect two seemingly disparate datasets” because odd correlations leap out and there are “data dividends” to be collected for those who think in an entrepreneurial way and can join up the dots.

Item: the people who buy those little felt pads that stop furniture scratching the floor are several times more likely to be good customers for insurance firms. But too often data is used in a dumb way. Part of this is just a question of people looking up rather than down, forward into the distance rather than peering close-up. A store owner could use CCTV to analyse footfall, for example, rather than just for security surveillance.  

The emergence of new job titles such as “chief digital officer” are promising signs of a change in thinking, I suggest, but Coplin is not totally convinced.

“I’m bullish [generally] but the only slight niggle I have is that were still treating data as a niche. Companies might think ‘We have a CDO and they’re doing the heavy lifting’ but everybody needs that insight.”

Microsoft’s search tool Bing still has a paltry market share compared to Google but Coplin says that it can come into its own as search and data intelligence become part of a broader platform of enmeshed services that enterprises expect.

“That was always our intent, I just think that we haven’t always done the best job in explaining that,” he says. “We’re not trying to out-Google Google. Bing is the golden thread that stitches together our services.”

Bing, for example, is the engine for Microsoft’s Cortana personal assistant tech which Coplin describes as “the natural user interface for everything the web has to offer”. Cortana will “help you do what you do better” through a heady brew of artificial intelligence, machine learning and, not least, user permissions.

This will lead to scenarios where Cortana anticipates your next moves and makes suggestions accordingly. For example, it might note the distances between your next two calendar appointments and warn you about heavy traffic between points A and B.

Coplin also points to a Microsoft Research effort called Project Adam that recognises objects using neural networking techniques. This, he says, will lead the way to new, smarter types of information discovery, breaking down silos for human beings who only need to provide one vital ingredient: inquisitiveness.

To get the full effect of such technologies users are likely to have to cede a certain amount of privacy and voluntarily give information on the basis of enlightened self-interest. But the upside is significant and the work being done by Microsoft (and rivals such as Google Now) will mean that quite soon we are all able to discover far more, faster. The old coordinates of users actively searching for information using text querying is changing and the future should become very interesting.  


Martin Veitch is Editorial Director at IDG Connect


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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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