Building a Data Organization that works and works with business

One thing that caught my attention on Netflix’s Neil Hunt’s interview with Gigaom was this :

A Data Organization that works & works with business

Well said. That explains Netflix’s data Science in a nutshell that all Data Scientists should emulate !

From a Chief Data Scientist’s perspective, I really like their way of looking at Data Science viz:

  • The folks who do data Science for the whole business
  • The folks who build algorithms & 
  • The folks who do data engineering

In fact I had a blog on this specialization of Data Science skills

Netflix is putting more weight on actual behavior ! Interesting, we are also seeking similar effects ie falling asleep on a couch vs. actually watching a TV show !  It is hard inference … Netflix has the blocker, I have nothing ;o(

Binge watching … interesting … We are actually working on algorithms to figure that out and change the ad mix. I plan to talk more at the TM Forum Digital Disruption Panel on December 9th !

bdtc-py-18-P76Finally, the fact that importance of Netflix recommendation engine is underrated is so true. In many ways the recommendation algorithms and engines are core to many systems.

In fact, we have a reverse recommendation strategy ! We recommend users to ads !

The Best Of the Worst – AntiPatterns & Antidotes in Big Data

Recently I was a panelist at the Big Data Tech Con discussing the Best of the Worst Practices in Big Data. We had an interesting and lively discussion with pragmatic,probing questions from the audience. I will post the video, if they publish it.

Here are my top 5 (Actually Bakers 5 ;o) ) – Anti Patterns and of course, the Antidotes …

1. Data Swamp

swamp-01Typical case of “ungoverned data stores addressing a limited data science audience“.

The scene reads like so :

The company proudly has crossed the chasm to the big data world with a new shiny Hadoop infrastructure. Now every one starts putting their data into this “lake”. After a few months, the disks are full; Hadoop is replicating 3 copies; even some bytes are falling off the floor from the wires – but no one has any clue on what data is in there, the consistency and the semantic coherence.

Larry at IT starts the data import process every week sometime in Friday night – they don’t want to load the DW with a Hadoop feed during customer hours. Sometimes Larry forgets and so you have no clue if the customer data is updated every week or every 14 days; there could be duplicates or missing record sets …

Gartner has an interesting piece about Data Lakes turning to Data Swamps – The Data Lake Fallacy: All Water and Little Substance … A must read …

The antidote is Data Curation. It needn’t be a very process heavy – have a consistent schema & publish them in a Wiki page. Of course, if you are part of a big organization (say retail) and have petabytes of data, naturally it calls for a streamlined process.

Data quality, data lineage, “descriptive metadata and an underlying mechanism to maintain it”, all are part of the data curation layer …

Semantic consistency across diverse multi-structured multi-temporal transactions require a level of data curation and discipline

2. Technology Stampede & Vendor Pollution

  • You start with a few machines, install Apache Hadoop and start loading data. Marketing fols catchup on your big data project and now you have a few apps running. A few projects come onboard and you have a decent sized cluster
  • A famous cloudy Hadoop vendor approaches the management and before you know it, the company has an enterprise license and you are installing the vendor’s Hadoop Manager & MPP database named after a GM car.
  • Naturally the management expects the organization to morph into a data-driven, buzz-compliant organization with this transition. And, naturally a Hadoop infrastructure alone is not going to suddenly morph the organization to a big data analytics poster child … vendor assertions aside …
  • And behold, the Pivotal guys approach another management layer and inevitably an enterprise license deal follows … their engineers come in and revamp the architecture, data formats, flows,…
    • Now you have Apache, the cloudy Hadoop vendor and this Pivotal thing – all Hadoop, all MPP databases, but of course, subtle differences & proprietary formats prevent you from doing anything substantial across the products …
      • In fact even though their offices are few miles apart in US-101, their products look like they are developed by people in different planets !
  • While all is going on, the web store front analytics folks have installed Cassandra & are doing interesting transformations in the NOSQL layer …
  • Of course the brick and mortar side of the business use HBase; now there is no easy way to combine inferences from the web & store-walk-ins
  • One or two applications (may be more) are using MongoDB and they also draw data from the HDFS store
  • And, the recent water cooler conversations indicate that another analytics vendor from Silicon Valley is having top level discussions with the CIO (who by now is frustrated with all the vendors and technology layers) … You might as well order another set of machines and brace for the next vendor wave …

The antidote is called Architecture & a Roadmap (I mean real architecture & roadmap based on business requirements)

Understand that no vendor has the silver bullet and that all their pitches are at best 30% true … One will need products from different vendors, but choose a few (and reject the rest) wisely ! 

3. Big Data to Nowhere

bridge-to-nowhereUnfortunately this is a very common scenario – IT sees an opportunity and starts building the infrastructure, sometimes massive, and puts petabytes of data in the Big Data Hub or lake or pool or … But no relevant business facing apps. A conversation goes like this …

Business : I heard that we have a big data infrastructure, cool. When can I show a demo to our customers ? 

IT : We have petabytes of data and I can show the Hadoop admin console. We even have the Spark UI !

Business : … (unprintable)

The Antidote is very simple. Build the full stack ie bits to business … do the data management ie collect-store-transform as well as a few apps that span the model-reason-predict-infer

Build incremental Decision Data Science & Product Data Science layers, as appropriate … for example the following conversation is a lot better …

Business : I heard that we have a big data infrastructure, cool. When can I show a demo to our customers ? 

IT : Actually we don’t have all the data. But from the transaction logs and customer data, we can infer that Males between 34 -36 buy a lot of stuff from us between 11:00 PM & 2:00 AM !

Business : That is interesting … Show me a graph. BTW, do you know what is the revenue is and the profit margin from these buys ?

IT : Graph is no problem. We have a shiny app with the dynamic model over the web logs.

IT: With the data we have, we only know that they comprise ~30% of our volume by transaction. But we do not have the order data in our Hadoop yet. We can … let me send out a budget request …

Now, business got an app, not fully production ready, still useful. IT has proved the value of the platform and can ask for more $ !

4. A Data too far

This is more of a technology challenge. When disparate systems start writing to a common store/file system, the resulting formats and elements would be different. You might get a few .gz files, a few .csv files and of course, parquet files. Some will have IDs, some names, some aggregated by week, some aggregated by day and others pure transactional. The challenge is that we have the data, but there is no easy way to combine them for interesting inferences …

5. Technology Maze

This is the flip side of the data format challenge (#4 above) This one is because of the technology stampede and the resulting incompatible systems where data is locked in.

Antidote : Integrated workflows.

Came across an interesting article by Jay Kreps. Couple of quotes:

” .. being able to apply arbitrary amounts of computational power to this data using frameworks like Hadoop let us build really cool products. But adopting these systems was also painful. Each system had to be populated with data, and the value it could provide was really only possible if that data was fresh and accurate.”

“…The current state of this kind of data flow is a scary thing. It is often built out of csv file dumps, rsync, and duct tape, and it’s in no way ready to scale with the big distributed systems that are increasingly available for companies to adopt.”

“..The most creative things that happen with data are less about sophisticated algorithms and vast computation (though those are nice) than it is about putting together different pieces of data that were previously locked up in different silos.”

The solution : A pub-sub infrastructure (Kafka) + “surrounding code that made up this realtime data pipeline—code that handled the structure of data, copied data from system to system, monitored data flows and ensured the correctness and integrity of data that was delivered, or derived analytics on these streams

5. Where is the Tofu ?

This is succinctly articulated by Xavier Amatriain when he talked about the Netflix Prize:

It is very simple to produce “reasonable” recommendations and extremely difficult to improve them to become “great”. But there is a huge difference in business value between reasonable Data Set and great …

The Antidote : The insights and the algorithms should be relevant and scalable … There is a huge gap between Model-Reason and Deploy …

What says thou ? Pl add comments about the Anti Patterns that you have observed and lived thru!



The Curious Case of the Data Scientist Profession

Data Science & the profession of a Data Scientist is being debated, rationalized, defined and refactored … I think the domain & the profession is maturing and our understanding of the Mythical Data Scientist is getting more pragmatic.

Now to the highlights:

1. Data Scientist is multi-faceted & contextual

  • Two points – It requires a multitude of skills & different skill sets at different situations; and definitely is a team effort.
  • This tweet sums it all
  • DataScienceTeam
  • Sometimes a Data Scientist has to tell a good business story to make an impact; other times the algorithm wins the day
    • Harlan in his blog identifies four combinations – Data Business Person, Data Creative, Data Engineer & Data Researcher
      • I don’t fully agree with the diagram – it has lot less programming & little more math; math is usually built-in the ML algorithms and the implementation is embedded in math libraries developed by the optimization specialists. A Data Scientist should n’t be twiddling with the math libraries
    • I had proposed the idea of a Data Science Engineer last year with similar thoughts; and elaborated more at “Who or what is a Data Scientist?
    • The BAH Field Guide suggests the following mix:
    • Data Scienc 03
    • I would prefer to see more ML than M. ML is the higher from of applied M and also includes Statistics
  • Domain Expertise and the ability to identify the correct problems are very important skills of a Data Scientist, says John Forman.
  • Or as Rachel Schutt at Columbia quotes:
    • Josh Wills (Cloudera)
      • Data Scientist (noun): Person who is better at statistics than any software engineer & better at software engineering than any statistician

    • Will Cukierski (Kaggle) retorts
      • Data Scientist (noun): Person who is worse at statistics than any statistician & worse at software engineering than any software engineer

2. The Data Scientist team should be building data products

3.  To tell the data story effectively, the supporting cast is essential

  • As Vishal puts it in his blog,
    • Data must be there & processable – the story definitely depends on the data
    • Processes & buy-in from management – many times, it is not the inference that is the bottle neck but the business processes that needs to be changed to implement the inferences & insights
    • As the BAH Field Guide says it:
    • Data Scienc 04
    • DS01

 4.  Pay attention to how the Data Science team is organized

5. Data Science is a continuum of Sophistication & Maturity – a marathon than a spirint

Let me stop here, I think the blog is getting long already …

Is it still “Artificial” Intelligence, if our Computers learn -to think- from the workings of our Brain ?


  • In fact that would be Natural Intelligence ! Intelligence is intelligence – it is a way of processing information to arrive at inferences, recommendations, predictions and so forth …

May be it is that Contemporary AI is actually just NI !

Point #1 : Machines are thinking like humans rather than acting like Humans

  • Primitives inspired by Computational Neuroscience like DeepLearning are becoming mainstream. We are no more enamored with Expert Systems that learn the rules & replace humans. We would rather have our machines help us chug through the huge amount of data.

We would rather interact with them via Google Glass – a two-way, highly interactive medium that act as a sensor array as well as augment cognition with a digital overlay over the real world

  • In fact, till now, our computers were mere brutes, without the elegance and finesse of the human touch !
  • Now the computers are diverging from Newtonian determinism to probabilistic generative models.
  • Instead of using greedy algorithms, the machines are now being introduced to Genetic Algorithms & Simulated Annealing. They now realize that local minima, computed via exhaustive brute force, are not the answers for all problems.
  • They now have knowledge graphs and have the capability to infer based on graph traversals and associated logic

Of course, deterministic transactional systems have their important place – we don’t want a probabilistic bank balance!

Point #2 : We don’t even want our machines to be like us

  • The operative word is “Augmented Cognition” – our machines should help us where we are not strong and augment our capabilities. More later …
  • Taking a cue from the contemporary media, “Person Of Interest” is a better model than “I,Robot” or “Almost Human” – a Mr.Spock, rather than a Sonny; Logical but resorts to the improbable and the random, when the impossible has been eliminated !

Point #3 : Now we are able to separate Interface from Inference & Intelligence


  • New Yorker asks, “Why can’t my computer understand me?” Finding answers to questions like “Can an alligator run the hundred-meter hurdles?” is syntax.
  • NLP (Natural Language Processing) and it’s first cousin NLU(Natural Language Understanding) are not intelligence, they are interface.
  • In fact, the team that built IBM Watson realized that “they didn’t need a genius, … but build the world’s most impressive dilettante … battling the efficient human mind with spectacular flamboyant inefficiency”.

Taking this line of thought to it’s extreme, one can argue that Google (Search) itself is the case and point of an ostentatious and elaborate infrastructure for what it does … no intelligence whatsoever – Artificial or Natural ! It should have been based on knowledge graph rather than a referral graph. Of course, in a few years, they would have made huge progress, no doubt.

  • BTW, Stephen Baker has captured the “Philosophy of an Intelligent Machine” very well.
  • I have been & am keeping track of the progress by Watson.
  • Since then, IBM Watson. itself, has made rapid progress in the areas of Knowledge Traversal & Contextual Probabilistic Inferences i.e. ingest large volume of unstructured data/knowledge & reason about it
  • I am not trivializing the effort and the significance of machines to understand the nuances of human interactions (speech, sarcasm, slang, irony, humor, satire et al); but we need to realize that, that is not an indication of intelligence or a measure what machines can do.

Human Interface is not Human Intelligence, same with machines. They need not look like us, walk like us, or even talk like us. They just need to augment us where we are not strong … with the right interface, of course

  • Gary Markus in New Yorker article “Can Super Mario Save AI” says “Human brains are remarkably inefficient in some key ways: our memories are lousy; our grasp of logic is shallow, and our capacity to do arithmetic is dismal. Our collective cognitive shortcomings are so numerous … And yet, in some ways, we continue to far outstrip the very silicon-based computers that so thoroughly kick our carbon-based behinds in arithmetic, logic, and memory …

Well said Gary. Humans & Machines should learn from the other and complement … not mimic each other … And there is nothing Artificial about it …

I really wish we take “Artificial” out of AI – Just incorporate what we are learning about ourselves into our computers & leave it at that !



The Art of an Insightful Recommendation

  • I have been working multiple aspects of recommendation including AI & DeepLearning
  • Came across an insightful talk by Eric Colson of Stitch Fix at Strata 2013 titled “Committing to Recommendation Algorithms”
  • Short, succinct & very informative. Slides
  • It is only ~8 min. So I urge you all to watch it.
  • I took down some notes and created couple of collages out of the presentations.
  • Strong Algorithms

  • StitchFix-01
  • Human Judgement


You see, their value proposition goes beyond convenience.
They provide a shopping experience beyond the casual encounter in a store or browse on a web page - The ability to find things that one wouldn’t have find on one’s own – and that is priceless!

Of Building Data Products

  • [Update 11/28/13] Notes from blog by Jon “Data Driven Disruption at Shuttershock” on what a data products company is
    1. Data is your product, regardless of what you sell
    2. Data is your lens into your business – Jon echo’s Peter’s insights viz. invest in data access; feel the pulse of the business & iterate
    3. Data creates your growth
  • Back to the main feature, Peter’s talk
  • A very insightful & informative talk by Peter Skomoroch of Linkedin via Zipfian academy
  • It is short & succinct, only 37 minutes. I urge all to watch
  • The slides of the talk “Developing Data Products” are at slideshare
  • Quick Notes:
    • A Data Product understands the world through inferential probabilistic models built on data
      • So collecting right data through “thoughtful” data design is very important
      • The data determines & precedes the feature set & the intelligence of your app
        • LinkedIn is a prime example – as they get more data, the app has become more intelligent, intuitive and ultimately more useful
        • Offer progressively sophisticated products, leveraging the data & insights, across the different user population segments – customer segmentation & stratification is not just for retail !
    • While more data, see “Unreasonable Effectiveness of Data” Distinguished Lecture by Peter Norvig, is good; for complex models, a deep understanding of the models and feature engineering would eventually be necessary (beyond the “black box”)
      • Data products about people, are usually complex, in terms of models as well as the data


[Update 12/13/13] Remember, a data product usually has the three layers – Interface, Inference & Intelligence

Big Data on the other side of the Trough of Disillusionment

5. Don’t implement a technology infrastructure but the end-to-end pipeline a.k.a. Bytes To Business

SImple Reason : Business doesn’t care about a shiny infrastructure, but about capabilities they can take to market …


4. Think Business Relevance and agility from multiple points of view

Aggregate Even Bigger Datasets, Scenarios and Use Cases

  • Be flexible, tell your stories, leveraging smart data, based on ever changing crisp business use cases & requirements

3. Big Data cuts across enterprise silos – facilitate organization change and adoption

  • Data always has been siloed, with each function having it’s own datasets – transactional as well as data marts
  • Big Data, by definition is heterogeneous & muti-schema
  • Data refresh, source of truth, organizational politics and even fear comes in the picture. Deal with them in a positive way

2. Build Data Products

1. tbd

  • One more for the road …