Author Archives: Espen

About Espen

For details, see www.espen.com.

The coolest referral prize ever…

top-girlriding-mobile-1[From the department of irrelevant stuff…]

Like many Norwegians, I have a Tesla (it is a bit like owning a Volvo station wagon here, due to enormous tax breaks on electric cars.) I am very happy with it. Elon Musk got rich on Paypal and took some business concepts from that experience, including a referral program: If a Tesla owner refers someone who buys a Tesla (my referral link is here, hint hint), the new Tesla owner gets a $1000 rebate and free supercharging as long as they own the car. And that is a nice thing to give away.

But what is the referral prize? I did not know, but no someone I have referred has bought a Tesla, and it turns out I get a Radio Flyer Tesla electric toy car. It not only looks like a Tesla S (down to the charging cable), but also has a frunk and you can connect a music player to its sound system(!).

Oh, to be four again… On the other hand, Lena and I will be grandparents in a few months, so it will see some use.

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Big Data in practice

(This is a translation of an earlier post in my Norwegian blog. This translation was done by Ragnvald Sannes using Google Translate with a few amendments. This technology malarky is getting better and better, isn’t it?).
ml_mapI have just finished teaching four days of data analytics – proper programming and data collection. We (Chandler, Alessandra and the undersigned) have managed to trick over 30 executives and middle managers in Norway to attend a programming and statistics course (more or less, this is actually what analytics basically is), while sort of wondering how we did that. The students are motivated and hard-working and have many and smart questions – in a course taught in English. It is almost enough to make me stop complaining about the state of the world and education and other things.
Anyway – what are these students going to do with this course? We are working on real projects, in the sense that we require people to come up with a problem they will find out in their own job – preferably something that is actually important and where deep data analysis can make a difference. This has worked for almost all the groups: They work on real issues in real organizations – and that is incredibly fun for the teacher. Here is a list of the projects, so judge by yourself. (I do not identify any students here, but believe me – these people face these issues every day.) Well worth spending time on:
  • What is the correct price for newly built homes? A group is working to figure out how to price homes that are not built yet, for a large residential building company.
  • What is the tax effect of the sharing economy? This group (where one student works for the Tax Administration) tries to figure out how to identify people who cheat on the tax as Uber drivers – while making suggestions on how tax rules can be adapted to make it easy to follow the law.
  • What characterizes successful consulting proposals? A major consulting firm wants to use data from their CRM system (which documents the bidding process) to understand what kind of projects they will win or lose.
  • How to recognize money laundering transactions? A bank wants to find out if any of their customers are doing money laundering through online gaming companies.
  • How to offer benefits to customers with automated analysis? A company that supplies stock trading terminals wants to use data analysis to create a competitive edge.
  • How to segment Norwegian shareholders? A company that offers online trading of shares wants to identify segments of its customers to pinpoint and improve its marketing strategy.
  • How to lower costs and reduce the risk of production stoppages in a process business? A hydropower company wants to better understand when and why your power stations need repairs or maintenance.
  • How to identify customers who are in the process of terminating? A TV company wants to understand what characterizes “churn” – how can they identify customers who are about to leave them?
  • Why are some wines more popular than others? A group will work with search data from a wine site to find out what makes some wines more sought after than others.
  • Which customers will buy a new product? A group is working on data from a large bank that wants to offer its existing customers more services.
  • How to increase the recycling rate for waste in Oslo? REN – Oslo’s municipal trash service – wants to find out if you can organize routes and routines differently to better utilize trash trucks and recycling plants.
  • How to avoid being sold out for promotional items? One of Norway’s largest grocery chains wishes to improve their ordering routines so that customers do not get to the store and find out that there is no more left of the offer they wanted.
  • How to model fraud risk in maritime insurance? An insurance company wants to build a model to understand how to find customers attempting to fraud companies or authorities.
  • Which customers are about to leave us? A large transport company wants to find out which customers are about to go to a competitor so that they can take action before it happens.
  • What characterize students who drop out? BI enters 3500 new students each year, but some of them end after the first year. How can we find evidence that a student is about to drop out?
Common to all the projects – and so it’s with all the student projects I have advised since I started in this industry – is that you start with a big question and reduce it to something that can actually be answered. Then you look for data and find that you need to reduce it even more. Then you get problems that the data is either not found, unreliable or inadequate – and one has to figure out what to do with it. Finally, after about 90% of the time and money budget is gone, one can begin to think about analysis. And then there is a risk that you find nothing…
And that is an important lesson of this course: The goal is that the student should be able to know about actual data analysis to ask the right questions and have a realistic expectation of what kind of answer you actually can get.
There is a great demand for this course – so we have set up an additional course this fall. See you there!

The reassembler

James May – Captain Slow, the butt of many Top Gear jokes about nerds and pedants – has a fantastic little show called The Reassembler, where he takes some product that has been taken apart into little pieces, and puts it together again. It works surprisingly well, especially when he goes off on tangents about corporate history, kids waiting for their birthdays to come, and whether something is a bolt or a screw.

Slow television, nerd style.

Here is one example, you can find others on Youtube:

Smarthelp: Locating and messaging passengers

 

If you are a public transportation company: How do you tell your prospective passengers that their travel plans may have to change?

Public transportation companies know a lot about their passengers’ travel patterns, but not as much as you would think – and, surprisingly, they know less now when ticket sales have been automated than they used to know before.

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RuterBillett – a ticketing app

Let’s take a concrete company as an example: Ruter AS, the public transportation authority of Greater Oslo. Ruter is a publicly owned company that coordinates various suppliers of transportation services (bus, tram, train, some ferries) in the Oslo area. The company has been quite innovative in their use of apps, selling most of their tickets on the RuterBillett app, and having many of their customers plan their journey on the RuterReise app. The apps are very popular because they make it very easy both to figure out which bus or train to take, and to buy a ticket.

The company has a problem, though: While they know that someone bought a ticket on the ticketing app, they don’t know which particular bus, tram or other service the passenger took (a ticket typically gives you one hour of open travel on their services, no matter how many of them you use).

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RuterReise – a journey planning app

They could get some information from what people have been searching for, but the two apps are not linked, and they don’t know whether a passenger who searched for a particular route actually bought a ticket and did the journey – or not. There are many reasons for this lack of knowledge, but privacy issues – Norway has very strict laws on privacy – are important. Ruter does not want to track where its customers are travelling, at least not if it in any way involves identifying who a passenger actually is.

Not knowing where passengers are is a problem in many situations: It creates difficulties for dimensioning capacity, and it makes it difficult to communicate with passengers when something happens – such as a bus delay or cancellation.

Identifying travel patterns and communicating with passengers

The problem for Ruter is that they want to know where people are travelling (so they can figure out how many buses or trams they need to schedule), they ned to know who regularly takes certain journeys (so they know whom to send a message to if that route is not working) and they need to know who is in a certain area at a certain time (so they don’t send you a message about your bus being delayed if you are out of town, for instance). All of this is easy, except for one thing: Norway has very strict privacy laws – already quite similar to EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, which goes into effect in 2018 – and Ruter cares deeply about not being seen as a company that monitors where people travel.

In short, they need to know where you travel, but do not want to know who you are.

This is a seemingly impossible challenge, but Smarthelp Secure Infrastructure, in combination with Smart Decision Support, makes it possible. The communications platform creates an end-to-end encrypted communication channel between a central system and the smartphone. Using technology developed because we had to solve the problem of medical-level encrypted communication between emergency centers and individual users, Smarthelp has technology that allows someone to track specific information you allow access to – say, the fact that you are in a certain area, or that you regularly travel certain paths – without sharing other information, such as your name.

This would allow Ruter, when something happens, to send a message to people who a) regularly takes, say, bus route 85, and who b) is in an area where it is conceivable that they could take the bus, given their prior patterns, the time of day, and so on. For the individual passenger, this would mean that you only get pertinent messages – you don’t get messages about bus routes you don’t normally take (unless you actually get on the bus), and you don’t get messages when you are far enough from the bus that it is clear you are not going to take it anyway. In a world of information overload, this is extremely important – flood the user with many messages, and they do not read them.

The future of public transportation

A selective message and geolocation service, such as Smarthelp provides, is an evolutionary step, an optimization of the current way transportation is coordinated. In the long term (especially if we start to talk about seld-driving vehicles), the whole way we coordinate public transportation will change. As one Ruter employee told me: A public transportation company is “someone who takes you from a place you are not to a place you don’t want to go.”

The next step in public transportation is that the users tells the company not just that they want to get on the bus, but also where they want to go. I have been told that in an experiment, Telenor found that, one sunny summer afternoon, fully half of their employees (located at Fornebu outside Oslo) planned to go to Huk, a public beach on Bygdøy. The distance from Telenor’s headquarters at Fornebu is 10 minutes by car, but takes more than 30 minutes by public transportation, involving two bus routes. If Ruter had known about these travel plans, though, it could have just rolled up some buses and driven the employees directly, vastly improving the service – and avoiding clogging up the regular buses to Bygdøy.

And that is the future of public transportation: Instead of planning where you will go in terms of geography, you will tell the public transportation company where you want to go, and they will get you there. With self-driving cars, they will be able to tell you when you will be at your destination – but, perhaps, not willing to tell you the actual route. As a passenger, you probably will not care – after all, what matters to you is when you arrive, not by which route.

That would, in effect, mean that we have transitioned public transportation from line switching to packet switching, effectively turning the bus into the Internet. But that is for the future.

In the meantime, there is Smarthelp.


(I am on the board of Råd AS, a company that has developed the platform SmartHelp for Norwegian emergency services, allowing shared situational awareness, communication and privacy. The company is now seeking customers and collaborators outside this market.)

Smarthelp is a platform technology consisting of, at present, three elements: Smarthelp Rescue, an app for iPhone and Android that allows users to transmit their position to an emergency service; Smarthelp Decision Support, a decision support system which allows an operator to locate and communicate with users (both with the app and without), and Smarthelp Secure Infrastructure, a granularly encrypted communications platform for secure, private communication. If you want more information, please contact me or Fredrik Øvergård, CEO of SmartHelp.

After Moore: Landauer

Very interesting blog by the very readable Ted: Is computing in reverse the next big thing?

As Moore’s law continues, it will reach certain physical limitations, such as electrons behaving less dependently the thinner the conduits become (think individual electrons instead of a more predictable stream. Another (they are linked, I suspect) is Landauer’s principle, which dictates that there is a certain lower limit on how much power that is necessary to flip a bit, and that forms a hard stop in terms of how much you can lower power consumption (and with it, heat dissipation.) (See Denning, P. J. and T. G. Lewis (2016). “Exponential laws of computing growth.” Communications of the ACM 60(1): 54-65, for an excellent discussion of Moore’s law and its remaining life.)

Turns out computing capability as a function of electric power consumption might be the next big obstacle (or at least measurement.) The BitCoin miners certainly know that.

Reverse, computing, which Ted writes about, is essentially computing where the power can be reversed, recreating the initial state. While difficult technically, it certainly would reduce power consumption to almost nothing.

To learn how, read the article. Recommended!

SmartHelp: Locating employees in a crisis

If there is a crisis – do you know where your people are?

Imagine the situation: An event (terrorist attack, industrial accident, public transportation accident) of some proportion happens. Many people are hurt, lots of rumors abound, emergency services are responding. Almost immediately, the question arises: Are any of my employees affected by this – and do they need help?

At present, most organizations locate their employees by calling them or sending emails. This is slow and ineffective – when Norway was hit by a terrorist bomb in the Oslo city centre in 2011 during the summer holiday, it took one of the large newspapers more than two days of frantic telephoning to find all their employees. Most of the employees were, of course, just fine, but the company still had to locate them all. In such a situation, knowing who is not in danger quickly is very important, because it lets you concentrate resources on those who need help.

Smarthelp Decision Support, the emergency service communication platform, allows an organization to quickly – within minutes – determine where its employees are and whether they need help. Smarthelp does this while maintaining privacy of the individual employee.

Most large organizations have a system where employees register where they travel on business. For this service to work, the employee has to remember to update it, though for some companies, this happens automatically if they purchase their tickets through a specific travel agency. While this may help, people travel for pleasure, deviate from their itineraries, forget to register their travels, and purchase their tickets from the cheapest, rather than the official source. Consequently, nobody knows where they really are.

SmartHelp Decision Support (see picture) allows the company to set up a geographical area surrounding the event, and contact all their employees (based on lists of telephone numbers) to determine whether they are inside this area or not.

terroreksempel

Here is another example: You are responsible for security in a large company facility – say, an office building. The company receives a bomb threat which necessitates evacuating the building with thousands of employees. If the employees have SmartHelp on their phones, you can communicate with them all, and determine whether they (or at least their smartphones have left the building (limited by GPS accuracy). You can define a rallying point or area and get an automatic message as soon as someone enters the area, allowing you to quickly determine who is not accounted for. (At this point, GPS location – which we use – does not allow precise location inside a building, but that could change as WiFi locationing services get better.)

rumorsparisAnother advantage is information: In the November 2015 terrorist attack in Paris happened, there where (as is usual) lots of rumors circulating in the hundreds of thousands of Twitter messages and other social channels. With SmartHelp, the authorities would have been able to send targeted messages to specific areas, conveying a precise and autorative message across a cacophony of noise and misinformation.

SmartHelp works anywhere in the world where there is mobile reception (I have used it to signal my position to my host in Shanghai, for instance.) Privacy is handled through an ingenious cryptographic architecture that is secure and fast – the platform is certified for the medical information under the Norwegian data privacy laws, among the strictest in the world.

If you want more information, please contact me or Fredrik Øvergård, CEO of SmartHelp.


(I am on the board of Råd AS, a company that has developed the platform SmartHelp for Norwegian emergency services, allowing shared situational awareness, communication and privacy. The company is now seeking customers and collaborators outside this market.)

Smarthelp is a platform technology consisting of, at present, three elements: Smarthelp Rescue, an app for iPhone and Android that allows users to transmit their position to an emergency service; Smarthelp Decision Support, a decision support system which allows an operator to locate and communicate with users (both with the app and without), and Smarthelp Secure Infrastructure, a granularly encrypted communications platform for secure, private communication. If you want to see how the system works in a 911 central situation, see this video:

Made my day!

digøkskjermI just got the message that the new bachelor program Informatikk: Digital Økonomi og Ledelse (Informatics: Digital Economics and Management) is now the most sought-after study program in Norway, with 19 applicants per available place (514 first-priority applicants for 27 available places).

Since I have taken the initiative to this program and developed it with colleagues at the University of Oslo (where I have an adjunct position, this definitely made my day. Week, actually.

Just sayin’…