Saturday, September 6, 2014

Is the Internet of Things the Real Thing?

The Internet of Things: an exciting new world with a digital nervous system or a nightmare where objects take decisions while we are unconscious?

15 years ago, when the term was first coined, it was about assigning everything around us a unique identity with RFID tags, to enable all material things to talk to each other and save us time for gathering and using information. As RFID tags dropped below 1 cent cost, and sensors, modems and devices are getting smaller, smarter and cheaper, this vision is moving closer to reality.

The latest Gartner's Hype Cycle (August 2014) places the Internet of Things at the peak of Inflated Expectations, while Big Data evolving in tandem with IoT has already started to fall into the through of disillusionment, getting ready to join mobile health and cloud computing right there on the bottom of the through.

Consumers are not ready to embrace the flood of smart wearables and appliances - as they don't really know what to do with them, don't perceive their value and are concerned about privacy and prices.

Clay Christensen's theory of "disruptive technology" emphasizes that technologies tend to get better at a faster rate than users' needs increase. Next Big Thing often starts as an expensive "toy". When the telephone was first introduced it could only be afforded by the rich and it could only carry a signal over a short distance. If Watson really had said in 1943 that "there is a world market for maybe five computers", as Gordon Bell pointed out much later, it would have held true for some ten years.

The first generation of IoT devices fell short of user needs and was rather primitive. Over a third of people who bought a smart wearable abandoned it a few months later. Yet, the "new" has never been hotter. It seems a new wearable is launching every week and we are constantly waiting for something newer and better, hoping it will finally answer the question "what can we do now that we could not do before?"

However, the current generation of "smart things" is focused mostly on better designed hardware and higher-end consumers. Fashionable elegant-looking devices are supposed to make wearables more appealing and "design thinking" is one of today's hottest buzzwords. Withings Activité, Fitbit pendants from Tory Burch,  Yves Béhar's designed Vessyl, Diane Von Furstenberg's Google glass, Rebecca Minkoff's tech-enabled jewelry, and the new bracelet from Intel - MICA  - highlighted by pearls and other precious stones - are getting ready to conquer attention of consumers and developers. Especially developers - as the size of the market will depend on the number of developer-entrepreneurs creating value in it.

The app economy taught hardware manufacturers that when people experiment they find ways to create value, often in unexpected ways.  But it also taught developers that they need to invest considerable time to build a marketable app and the chances of that app to make money are about 1 in 25,000. As the average age of developers keeps decreasing getting into the middle and high school years, the main benefit of app development becomes education and learning by itself. But will this be sufficient for the Internet of Things or will inter-networked things remain a toy for the wealthy?

Saturday, June 28, 2014

On Luck, Skill and Hard Work - in Soccer and Life

Big data doesn't always get us closer to truth. Especially if there a fair bit of luck involved. And many think this applies to football/soccer games (Sally and Anderson, for example, say that soccer results are 50% luck). Yet data analysis provides valuable, sometimes counter-intuitive insights into this beautiful sport and the science of winning and losing in general.

How many measurable elements of a soccer game contribute to the outcome? 2014 FIFA world cup's statistics page displays scores calculated with sophisticated motion analysis from thousands of player movements along with more straightforward measures such as goals scored, short, medium and long hits, completion rate of passes, blocked and saved shots, attempts off target, tackles and blocks. And there are also flops, screams, winces, poundings of the grass and other theatrical elements that may also decide the fate of the game.

Just a quick glance at the FIFA statistics page (refreshed after each game) might bring surprises. On June 24th, the best defending team was Columbia that advanced to the next round, while the best attacking team, Côte d'Ivoire, and the team with the highest number of successfully completed passes, Spain, were not able to make it. The leader board is now featuring winning teams as the best attacker (France, as of June 25th) and the best passer (Germany,  as of June 26th), but obviously neither of these achievements alone is sufficient to predict the winner.

Data from the last seasons of the British Premier League demonstrated that scoring a goal was twice less valuable than not conceding a likely goal. Yet England - #6 on the list of top attackers, #8 on the list of best passers and #11 on the list of best defenders  - did not make it into the top 16, while France - #32 as a defender and one of the very best attacking teams has advanced to the round of 16. Only three teams among the top ten attackers won the 1st round and all three - Argentina, France and Germany - are leaders in their respective groups. Compare it to seven from the ten best defending teams that advanced to 1/16th finals. Note that all of them took second, not the 1st positions in their groups. So the ability to defend against counter-attack is definitely crucial to success, but the propensity to attack increases both the risk and the potential return.

A good example of skill in soccer is the elegant passing style of Spanish players dubbed Tiki-taka. This approach, based on speed, unity and a comprehensive understanding of the field geometry, helped Spain to win in Euro 2008, the 2010 FIFA World Cup and Euro 2012. Network analysis of interactions among the players (Cota t al., 2011; Peña & Touchette, 2012) highlighted the importance of skillful passes, yet the ability to do it well doesn't always lead to success - as was demonstrated by Brazilian team during the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup (they won despite possessing the ball only 47% of the time vs 53% for Spain) and by Netherlands and Chile that knocked Spain out in the group stage.

How can we measure luck in soccer separate from skill?
One way would be to forecast game outcomes in terms of probabilities (as a researcher from Wolfram Alpha did for the upcoming round of 2014 world cup -- see the figure) then look at the distribution of actual results of games between these teams. Another useful tool adopted from ice hockey analysis is PDO - the sum of a team's shooting and save percentages (fraction of shots resulted or not resulted in a goal scored). Neither of the approaches was able to pinpoint particularly lucky teams. In analysis of a 2010/2011 season, good and bad teams appeared to be equally "lucky" or "unlucky".

"I am a great believer in luck,"said Thomas Jefferson, "and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it".

Perhaps we need to focus on values like amounts of running during the game  - as a proxy for hard work? US defender Michael Bradley holds the trophy for the 1st round of world cup (largest distance covered), but average distance ran by players that advanced or did not advance to the next round seems to be about the same. However, if we compare players from higher and lower divisions of national teams, the differences in these distances become more dramatic. In one Dutch study, top-class players performed 28% and 58% more high-intensity running and sprinting, respectively, than the moderate players (Mohr et al., 2003). Better goalkeepers ran more too, as seen from a recent Italian study (Paduli et al, 2014). So hard work (and good health to carry on) is very important, indeed. At least in order to join the elite soccer club.

The amount of data created every minute for the analysis of soccer games is absolutely amazing (and will be increasing exponentially with newer optical tracking tools and high-tech Kinexon balls). In order to accurately predict the outcome of the game played by almost equally skilled & hardworking teams one needs to know minute-to-minute movements of every player. Like the weather, the scores of such games might be hard to forecast past a certain timeframe. Yet, better models and more sophisticated computations will be yielding more accurate results  (as shown by Aurametrix for subtle cause-effect relationships contributing to how you feel on a daily basis).

But for now let's call it luck when we can't see the unseen and predict things before they happen. And let's enjoy top-flight soccer for the next few weeks.

Javier López Peña, & Hugo Touchette (2012). A network theory analysis of football strategies In C. Clanet (ed.), Sports Physics: Proc. 2012 Euromech Physics of Sports Conference, p. 517-528, \'Editions de l'\'Ecole Polytechnique, Palaiseau, 2013. (ISBN 978-2-7302-1615-9) arXiv: 1206.6904v1

Cotta, C., Mora, A., Merelo, J., & Merelo-Molina, C. (2013). A network analysis of the 2010 FIFA world cup champion team play Journal of Systems Science and Complexity, 26 (1), 21-42 DOI: 10.1007/s11424-013-2291-2

Padulo J, Haddad M, Ardigò LP, Chamari K, & Pizzolato F (2014). High frequency performance analysis of professional soccer goalkeepers: a pilot study. The Journal of sports medicine and physical fitness PMID: 24921614

Mohr M1, Krustrup P, Bangsbo J. (2003) Match performance of high-standard soccer players with special reference to development of fatigue. J Sports Sci. 21(7):519-28. 

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Curse of the Internet

It's hard to imagine our lives without the
Someone from 1950s appeared today... what's most difficult thing about life to explain to them. A device in pocket capable of accessing all information known to man. Use it to look at pictures of cats and argue with strangers.
Internet  - either mobile or desktop.

The Internet has become a catalyst of innovation, an essential tool in business and social life. It brought new levels of participation and access to knowledge. It enabled new forms of interaction, albeit mostly utilized for entertainment purposes (as in the famous answer of a Reddit user to a now deleted question captured in the figure on the right).

But despite all the advantages and conveniences, does the Internet really serve us or is it the other way around?

Internet companies, large and small, are quietly but forcefully collecting our life's data hoping to have us "on the leash."

If people want to use a web service, the service gets away with almost anything. Google knows about our friendships, content of gmail and google voice conversations. They see the places we go or want to go on maps and how we spend time on millions of websites. Amazon knows about our tastes and interests, phone carriers have nearly minute-by-minute accounts of months and years of our lives, credit card companies are building our psychographic profiles. Target stores can figure out their customers' health conditions before they do... and if you think other companies are better protecting sensitive information (remember the giant data breach?), think again.

Discovered this week, major security flow dubbed "Heartbleed" had existed for over two years. The defect in encryption technology used by many websites and networking equipment makers have put millions of passwords and other sensitive information at risk. Just another reminder of why you should scrutinize the security on the Internet and other web-connected gadgetry.

Vulnerabilities can be found everywhere. The network of a big oil company was hacked through the online menu of a Chinese restaurant popular with employees. Target was breached through its heating and cooling system. Printers, thermostats, videoconferencing equipment, household items, even vending machines and gas pumps can be used to gain access to your data. And so can employees of the companies collecting data. Last year there were multiple cases when stolen patient identification information was used to file unauthorized income tax returns.

Recently published SANS healthcare cyberthreat report reveals that health care networks (hospitals, insurance carriers, pharmaceutical companies, web sites, software and devices) - have been and continue to be compromised by successful cybercriminal attacks. Health networks seem to have the weakest Internet security among sites dealing with sensitive information, often not addressing very basic issues, vulnerable to off-line password guessing and user impersonation attack.

Trust is especially important in health care. As the days of blind trust that 'doctor knows best' are becoming a distant memory, new cases of security breaches can lower the trust further discouraging use of digital health services and disclosure of important medically relevant information.

At present, most digital health products and corporate wellness programs fail both companies and patients. There are many fundamental flaws responsible for that. And the lack of trust is not going to make it any more successful.

Paraphrasing Derek Thompson's passage about Facebook and Amazon, for the Internet of Things for Health and Wellness to succeed, we have to embrace a new version of intimacy that felt natural when the good old-fashioned country doctor made house calls. The machines have to know us. Will we let them?


Pogue D (2014). The curse of the cloud. Scientific American, 310 (2) PMID: 24640327

Wu F, & Xu L (2013). Security analysis and Improvement of a Privacy Authentication Scheme for Telecare Medical Information Systems. Journal of medical systems, 37 (4) PMID: 23818249

The SANS-Norse Healthcare Cyberthreat Report:
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