Friday, May 22, 2009

Architecture is mostly an art of building emotions

I watched 2 amazing architects - Frank Gehry and Renzo Piano - on Charlie Rose yesterday. Something Renzo Piano said in reference to Louis Kahn's Salk Institute building in La Jolla really stuck out -- "Architecture is mostly an art of building emotions"

.. wisdom just oozes out of these great men..

Frank Gehry:

Renzo Piano:

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Data Visualization is about Telling a Story

First off -- Hans Rosling is an inspiration to us all in the business of analytics and data visualization. Not only this story is extremely relevant, but the way he shows the numbers -- there is a lot to learn. I will make an attempt here to deconstruct his latest TED talk in terms of what a good BI tool show do, and also how this is a great use case of how great BI users behave:

BI Features Used by Hans Rosling:
  • The most prominent is the use of Time as a special type of "dimension". The tool knows that Time will support the concept of a Play button. This is still very novel -- most BI tool, OpenI included, treat Time as any other dimension -- you can drill up, drill down, set date filters, or date ranges -- but that's about it. Taking a lesson from here, what we should do instead is that the moment there is a Time dimension, user should have the option to "superimpose" Time in "Play" mode within a given analysis -- this should result in a Video Player like slider widget appear at the bottom of the analysis with a big old Play/Pause button next to it

  • Notice how he first presents the data bubbles in dual-axis graph and then transitions it over to a map view. This makes the concept of "background canvas" a dynamic entity for presenting data. How many other choices a user can have (in addition to dual-axis and map overlay) to use as the context in which the data should be presented

  • He keeps only 1 attribute per axis - country in X-axis, and % of population with HIV on Y-axis, and everything else (gender, per capital income, etc.) is treated as a filter (in OLAP speak). This keeps the visual very clear on its message. I have often struggled with OLAP based analyses, which have multiple dimensions on each axis, which makes sense sometimes in the table view, but the chart-view is completely horrid. Single data attribute per axis is a way to address that

  • When it comes to drilling further into data, he basically clicks on a country bubble -- and it can either split by income groups, or only the specific country goes on a time play motion while others stay the some, etc. -- the key for me here is that drilling down is best done at the visual level -- somewhere on the chart/graph itself the user should be able to isolate a data group (in this case a country bubble), and have a choice on drilling down or move it back and forth in time
Hans Rosling as a BI User/Presenter
  • Emotion, emotion, emotion... he is so far away from the stereotype of a statistician making a presentation. He cares about what he's presenting. The numbers are real people -- they get sick, and they can either get better or they can die.. you can feel that empathy as he presents.

  • Al Gore did this first (that I can recall) in The Inconvenient Truth when he brought a crane ladder to hoist him up so he can point to the tallest bar in the chart that he is showing. Maybe a bit too melodramatic -- but it drives the point, and also makes a more visceral connection with the data. Hans Rosling stands on top of a table at the beginning of the presentation to explain the different numbers he is presenting, and the audience is at once connected and engaged

  • His bringing of the long metal pole to point to the numbers instead of your generic laser pointer ("I have solidified the laser beam") is another way to get more personal and physical to show how involved he is

  • Ultimately he has leverages the BI tool to make a presentation, to tell a compelling story. Earlier in my career, we worked on a feature with another BI tool that automatically generated powerpoints from its charts. Yes, it was pretty crude, and didn't really work that well usabilitywise -- but the point is, this was definitely a feature aimed at helping users build a story off the various charts and grahps and analyses. People want to tell a story -- the BI tool should help them do that.
Ultimately, watching Mr. Rosling is definitely inspirational -- I can only hope that OpenI will one day does the things he's shown us in this presentation. I'm sure we will get there in due time, but it is the spirit in which BI tools are used, and their ultimate message.. that's the important thing to keep in mind as we move the product forward.

Vote for OpenI in Community Choice Awards

Please support OpenI by voting for OpenI as the "best enterprise project" in the SourceForge.Net Community Choice Awards.

I promise you we won't forget you once we become famous :-)


Friday, May 08, 2009

San Francisco Approves Nation's Largest Municipal Solar Project

Solar project is a go, but still has critics

Despite concerns that the city is getting a raw deal, the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved a controversial 25-year deal with a private company to build a photovoltaic solar plant on top of a city-owned reservoir.
And from Recurrent Energy, who will be buliding this plant:
The San Francisco Sunset Reservoir Solar Project

The City of San Francisco is currently planning a five megawatt solar photovoltaic system on the roof of the City’s largest reservoir, located at 24th and Ortega Streets in the Sunset district. Upon completion, the project will consist of nearly 25,000 solar panels that span nearly twelve football fields — becoming California’s largest photovoltaic system and the nation’s largest municipal solar project. This project will more than triple the municipal solar generation in San Francisco and reduce carbon emissions by over 100,000 metric tons, furthering the City's leadership in clean energy implementation.
Everyday when I drive my son to his school, I pass by this big reservoir in the sunset district, and to think that it's going to look like this is really cool (photo simulations from Recurrent Energy's site)

Here's one from Chron with GG bridge in the background:

There have been critics that the city is paying too much money to the private builder, etc. -- and while I'm no expert, the deal does make sense for many reasons:
  • This is a great example of a city taking leadership in reducing carbon emissions, producing energy not reliant on foreign oil, and more importantly, right smack middle of the city you have the largest "billboard" you can imagine for public awareness on environmental responsibility
  • Financially, the city did a smart thing by doing a power purchase agreement (PPA) with the private builder. This way, the city only pays for the energy produced by the plant at a fixed rate of $235/MWH (about 23 cents per KWH, which is approximately similar to buying power from PG&E directly at A-6 commercial rates), escalated at 3% per year over the next 25 years. This may seem high compared to what you'd normally pay -- but what this cost doesn't reflect is the hidden price of carbon emission if the city bought that energy from fossil fuel-based sources. 
  • I as a citizen of this great city, and I'm sure I'm not the only one, feel a great deal of pride that our city has the courage to take this bold step, and also to offer new programs to promote residential solar (pioneered by the city of Berkeley); and a city thrives when its citizens are proud of it, a sentiment that magnifies all the way up to the county, state, nation, and the entire planent
So, it was a great feeling today as I drove my son to his school -- I proudly pointed out to the reservoir and said "see that? our city is going to cover all that with solar panels that will produce electricity, and help our environment a the same time.."

My son's response -- "you mean we will have electric cars?"

Well, one thing at a time..

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Starter Rental Place in San Francisco

A colleague of mine moving to San Francisco asked -- "where's a good neighborhood to rent? which parts should I avoid?"

His requirements: his job is in San Bruno. Wife doesn't drive, nor wants to. No kids.

My gut response: should live in the city, easier for his wife to get around and make friends, etc. Since he needs to go to San Bruno, should live close to BART. So I sent him this map

Or get a place close to San Bruno BART station. SOMA might be another option.

Anything I might be overlooking? 

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

OpenI 2.0 Beta Released

Happy to announce that we released OpenI 2.0 beta today. Check out the updated OpenI.Org site for more news.

With this, I feel I have reached a milestone with this blog. I originally titled this blog "Business Intelligence Adventures", thinking there isn't much difference in my private versus professional life, and as such, I could pretty much blog everything under BI, since that is what I ate, slept, and breathed.

Now as I look at my posts for the last year, they seem to be all over the place, and so I questioned if this is the right blog to post everything under the sun. I think that it is probably better if I blog all BI specific rants over at the OpenI site since that is a much more relevant forum. I really need to free this blog from any topical constraints (probably at the expense of alienating some of the BI-oriented readers) to let this blog evolve through its natural course.

What does that mean? Well, you can probably guess if you look at the last few posts :-) So it will be more about life's offbeat adventures than just BI.

You be the judge.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Indians give a Middle Finger to their General Election

No, literally.

See -- yesterday was general election in India, and here is how Amitabh Bachchan describes the whole affair in his blog: 

So when the four of us are asked by paparazzi, to show our fingers in acknowledgment of us having punched our votes, we show it to them. It is another matter that, the Government marks our middle finger with an indelible ink, to avoid duplication and therefore unfair electoral procedures. Showing of the middle finger in the Western world apparently has different connotations. So I guess, in usual fashion, that is all that the press shall flash tomorrow !! And for those that may miss it here is the photo..!!

And in his post today, there are gobs of other pictures of everyone from common citizens to police to celebrities showing their pride in the democratic process. See for yourself

.. and we worry about "hanging chads" :-)