Noah Gift on business analytics and cloud computing

Big data can't hide from a parsing by the combination of cloud and analytics

Noah Gift, associate director of Engineering at AT&T Interactive, talks about synergy between cloud computing and business analytics and serves up a working example from his new developerWorks article "Cloud business analytics: Write your own dashboard." He also shares some interesting background on the history of business analytics, citing controversial U.S. political figure Robert McNamara as a business analytics pioneer and talking about the connection to games and statistical analysis. Plus, what's new at developerWorks.

Scott Laningham (scottla@us.ibm.com), Podcast Editor, IBM developerWorks

Scott LaninghamScott Laningham, host of developerWorks podcasts, was previously editor of developerWorks newsletters. Prior to IBM, he was an award-winning reporter and director for news programming featured on Public Radio International, a freelance writer for the American Communications Foundation and CBS Radio, and a songwriter/musician.



11 February 2011

developerWorks: This is the developerWorks podcast. I'm Scott Laningham. Today my guest is Noah Gift, who is associate director of engineering at AT&T Interactive. He's the author of a new developerWorks article on synergy between cloud computing and business analytics called "Cloud business analytics: Write your own dashboard and find patterns in multitudes of cloud business and analytics data." Noah, thanks for doing this today.

Where cloud data and analytic techniques meet

Listen to this podcast.

(Editor: To discover what new resources are available this week in developerWorks and My developerWorks, jump to the end of this interview.)

Gift: Well thank you for having me on the show.

developerWorks: Good to have you. And maybe the first question is, what's special about doing business analytics in the cloud? And I'm assuming that the increased ease in sharing data between applications in the cloud, which is one of the big selling points of cloud computing, may be a starting point for you.

Gift: That's exactly right. The interesting thing to me about cloud computing other than the fact that it does bring about economies of scale and efficiencies is that it is now a place where there's a gigantic pool of data and we have these tools that have been developed to analyze data; it is really a natural combination to start looking at these large data sets and finding meaningful things about them.

developerWorks: Now, you defined business analytics as you're using that term in the article and there's some very interesting history there I found in the article, specifically about a famous American, Robert McNamara. You want to give a little bit of that here?

Gift: Sure. There's a great documentary, Fog of War, if someone's interested in doing a little research on their own. But Robert McNamara is a really nuanced and interesting character in American history.

And he really could be thought of as the father of business analytics. He was extremely bright, came out of Harvard Business School, essentially turned around Ford Motor Company, and then really in an altruistic sense decided to try to help America and turn his efforts to improving the efficiency of the military.

And as many people are aware, there's obviously some failure that occurred during the Vietnam War and he definitely played a role in that that was fairly significant. So I think one of the interesting things about looking at him as the father of business analytics is that you can see this promise of greatness and you can see all of the good things that can happen when you start looking at data in a very analytical way.

But you can also see some of the dark sides of [what happens] if you look at the data in the wrong way or don't provide the correct context. And so I think he's really an interesting character to look at and kind of adds some color to the field of business analytics.

developerWorks: Yes, those are good points. Very interesting. And it's kind of ... you have to make sure you see the forest for the trees or not get lost in the details but use them to empower good decision-making, right?

Gift: Exactly. It's a tool.

developerWorks: Now the other thing you cite to build your working definition of business analytics with is games and statistical analysis. What's the connection there?

Gift: Well, one of the other fields that is quite interesting in business analytics is the area of game theory. And probably the most famous game theory problem is the prisoner's dilemma. And I go into detail on it in the article, but essentially game theory is a way to strategize about problems and it's really interesting because you can use those same game theory problems in trying to decide what to do with your business and how to deal with competitors and even in trivial matters like when does someone decide to go to another link on the website.

And it's really an interesting mixture of different fields, where game theory has got this economics background to it and now we have this IT/cloud-based background. And that's really I think the synergy of those two things, is what business analytics and the cloud is all about.

developerWorks: Enabling so much more power and speed in the process, so at least ... and simplification in many ways, right?

Gift: That's correct. That's absolutely right.

developerWorks: So talk about the example that you give in the article, Noah, about pulling kind of all of this together.

Gift: So the example that I gave was really a proof of concept and what it did was it parsed my Gmail account. And I used the language Python, which is ... I would highly recommend if you're going to do prototyping or cloud-based development because it allows you to quickly write something to solve your problem.

And after the data came out of Gmail, I used the library referred to as the Natural Language Toolkit. And what that does is it breaks apart the email message into parts of speech. And at that point, you can do some fairly sophisticated things.

In my example, I just broke it into three-word phrases and I used a verb, the letter to, T-O, and another verb as the pattern match. You can go into much more sophisticated pattern matching. And then finally I just took that data and put it into a piechart using a charting library.

And I think it's a really good example of the kinds of things you can do in building analytics dashboards because essentially you could ... that could be a tool that a customer service center could use, for example, to kind of get a handle on what's going on with complaints at their company.

developerWorks: Very cool. And listeners can find that article in the developerWorks cloud computing zone. It's called Cloud business analytics: Write your own dashboard.

Noah, where else can people follow you other than your writing on developerWorks? You Twitter and blog and stuff like that?

Gift: Well, I have my own website, NoahGift.com, and from there, there's links to articles I've written and places that I will be speaking at in the coming year and also some of my previous writing.

developerWorks: Noah Gift, associate director of engineering at AT&T Interactive and a developerWorks highlighted author this week. Noah, thanks for your time.

Gift: I appreciate it.

developerWorks: Again, check out Noah's article highlighted on the developerWorks home page this week.

I also want to mention Lotusphere 2011 coming up January 30 through February 3 in Orlando, Florida, at Walt Disneyworld.

We will be there for developerWorks covering the conference and streaming some live interviews right here on developerWorks. You can find that on our home page and in my blog on developerWorks. So we hope you'll tune in for that. Should be a lot of fun.

IBM.com/developerworks is IBM's premier technical resource for software developers with tools, code and education on IBM products and open standards technology. I'm Scott Laningham. Talk to you next time.

What's new in the developerWorks community?

developerWorks: Now, developerWorks Newsletter's editor John Swanson is here with the Swanson Minute.

Swanson: Is it too late to say Happy New Year?

developerWorks: No, never. Never.

Swanson: Happy New Year, Scott.

developerWorks: Likewise.

Swanson: And all those other holidays we may have missed since we last spoke.

developerWorks: Absolutely. It's always great to have a new year and new opportunities and new optimism that come with the new year. I know you're optimistic about something. You're optimistic about [IBM supercomputer] Watson's chances on Jeopardy, aren't you?

Swanson: Yes. This week on the developerWorks newsletter [January 20, 2011 issue | current issue] I'm focusing on the Watson supercomputer which ... it's been in the news a lot so folks may already know ... it's going to be a contestant on the Jeopardy game show next month. I think it's going to debut on Valentine's Day and he's going to ... he? ... I don't know why I said "he" ... it's going to go up against Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, a couple of previous Jeopardy champs. And should make for some interesting TV.

And the challenge here, of course, is that computers have never been particularly good at dealing with natural language, but Watson is an 80-teraflops system that they're hoping can make it work. They've had a couple of practice rounds and things seem to be doing swimmingly so far.

developerWorks: That's cool. Hopefully Watson's performance is heavy on the tera and light on the flops, then, right? [LAUGHTER]

Swanson: Indeed, indeed. So that's this week's newsletter. Now, it's been a few weeks since we last checked in together and of course, the first issue of the newsletter for the year, now it's a tradition that I publish the top 10 articles from the previous year. In this case actually, we managed to post the top 20 list on the site, the top 20 most popular URLs, resources on developerWorks from 2010. So, that's worth checking out too. So, for those who haven't subscribed, I encourage them to do so.

developerWorks: John Swanson with developerWorks newsletter. And if you're not subscribed, you should be. It's a great way to stay alerted to the latest developerWorks content that you're most interested in. Find a link to the newsletter registration in the righthand nav of the developerWorks home page. Thanks, John.

Swanson: Thank you, Scott.

developerWorks: Also new on developerWorks this week:

All that and more at ibm.com/developerworks.

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