Sunday, February 1, 2009

Kris Hammond on Frictionless Information at SIIA

The basic message of this talk can be summed up as "Don't compete with Google, but do an end run around the search box by pushing relevant content to users as they create or consume information." Dr. Hammond is co-director of the Intelligent Information Laboratory at Northwestern University. His talk was unusually technical for SIIA, and was greatly enjoyed by some, but not others. (I enjoyed it, of course.)

Frictionless information is defined as "information that proactively serves people based on the context of their activities." The idea is: know the user, be embedded in their workflow, understand their context, and get content to help them. Push from any relevant source and deliver to any format. Two applications were presented which illustrate the concept.

One is a desktop "relevance engine" that suggests content in the research pane of Word, based on what the user is writing. This idea is not totally new (c.f., the Watson search tool), but the magic is all in the execution. How often do you query, what sources, how do you ensure pinpoint relevance and up-to-the-minute freshness? The strategy seemed to be to query a lot initially, e.g., when the user opens or starts a document, and then only present things that are new, e.g., when the focus changes.

The other is called "Beyond Broadcast" - a program that watches TV along with you (presumably embedded in a Tivo box?) that builds a micro-site based on what you're seeing. On the site, there is related Web material, such as news, YouTube videos, blogs, and of course ads. The application apparently takes the kind of show into account, e.g., feature film, comedy show, etc. The client is Titan TV, whose primary business is delivering TV to your PC.

I do like these ideas. At Thomson Reuters, we built a recommendation system based on the relevance engine concept back in 2003, called ResultsPlus. ResultsPlus reads queries being run against case opinions on Westlaw and suggests other sources of information, such as briefs, law reviews etc. Thanks to high relevance driven by personalization, this service has been a huge hit. Annotating video with Web and other data is another active area of research for us, and will appear in a new product launch shortly.

I believe that traditional publishers can indeed preserve their relevance in the face of new media if they leverage their domain expertise, and that of their users, to support customers proactively in the performance of common, but high value, tasks. Basic search is now a commodity, but what I am describing here (which I call "expert search") is not a commodity, since it requires both scarce knowledge and the existence of an online community.

Mark Walsh on "micro-scripts": SIIA Interview

Mark Walsh is a bone fide pundit of politics and media, and also the CEO of GeniusRocket, a crowd-sourcing company for creative content and brand marketing. If you accept the conventional definition of Washington as "Hollywood for Unattractive People", then you have to believe that politicians are typically judged more by what they say than how they look, and that how they say it is increasingly important as 24/7 media coverage intensifies.

Mr. Walsh suggests that politicians have started using "micro-scripts" to penetrate the consciousness of an electorate suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder. He cited the use of terms like "maverick", "(bridge to) nowhere", "lipstick" and even "change" (as in "change we can believe in") as evidence that the last election had gone in this direction. Of course, Madison Avenue hit Washington a long time ago, so in some ways there's nothing new here.

I struggled a bit to see how a micro-script is different from a slogan or a sound bite. A micro-script seems to be a sound bite that has become institutionalized, and therefore part of the brand. It also brings with it back story, or a set of assumptions, that is hard to question once it gets established. (Dan Schaible of BurrellesLuce has a good take on this.)

Mr. Walsh also suggested that President Obama's tendency to speak more slowly and deliberately may end up having the effect of "human Ritalin" on the current political debate, making us all more thoughtful. One certainly hopes so. As I said in my last post, and as Henry Blodgett suggested at SIIA, the Internet does have the ability promote truth and reason, so long as the debate is lifted above knee-jerk phrases (like "big government") and disinformation (the Swift boat campaign).

I am reminded of an interview I saw on British television many years ago, where someone asked an aged contemporary of Wyatt Earp whether or not the legendary marshall really was fast with a gun. "No, he was deliberate," the old man said. In other words, he took his time and made his bullets count. I think that his may turn out to describe Barack Obama quite well, and it stands in stark contrast with some recent presidents, who have generally adopted a "shoot from the hip" philosophy.