Interview Alain Chesnais Chief Scientist Trendspottr.com

Here is a brief interview with Alain Chesnais ,Chief Scientist  Trendspottr.com. It is a big honor to interview such a legend in computer science, and I am grateful to both him and Mark Zohar for taking time to write these down.
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Ajay-  Describe your career from your student days to being the President of ACM (Association of Computing Machinery http://www.acm.org/ ). How can we increase  the interest of students in STEM education, particularly in view of the shortage of data scientists.
 
Alain- I’m trying to sum up a career of over 35 years. This may be a bit long winded…
I started my career in CS when I was in high school in the early 70’s. I was accepted in the National Science Foundation’s Science Honors Program in 9th grade and the first course I took was a Fortran programming course at Columbia University. This was on an IBM 360 using punch cards.
The next year my high school got a donation from DEC of a PDP-8E mini computer. I ended up spending a lot of time in the machine room all through high school at a time when access to computers wasn’t all that common. I went to college in Paris and ended up at l’Ecole Normale Supérieure de Cachan in the newly created Computer Science department.
My first job after finishing my graduate studies was as a research assistant at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique where I focused my efforts on modelling the behaviour of distributed database systems in the presence of locking. When François Mitterand was elected president of France in 1981, he invited Nicholas Negroponte and Seymour Papert to come to France to set up the Centre Mondial Informatique. I was hired as a researcher there and continued on to become director of software development until it was closed down in 1986. I then started up my own company focusing on distributed computer graphics. We sold the company to Abvent in the early 90’s.
After that, I was hired by Thomson Digital Image to lead their rendering team. We were acquired by Wavefront Technologies in 1993 then by SGI in 1995 and merged with Alias Research. In the merged company: Alias|wavefront, I was director of engineering on the Maya project. Our team received an Oscar in 2003 for the creation of the Maya software system.
Since then I’ve worked at various companies, most recently focusing on social media and Big Data issues associated with it. Mark Zohar and I worked together at SceneCaster in 2007 where we developed a Facebook app that allowed users to create their own 3D scenes and share them with friends via Facebook without requiring a proprietary plugin. In December 2007 it was the most popular app in its category on Facebook.
Recently Mark approached me with a concept related to mining the content of public tweets to determine what was trending in real time. Using math similar to what I had developed during my graduate studies to model the performance of distributed databases in the presence of locking, we built up a real time analytics engine that ranks the content of tweets as they stream in. The math is designed to scale linearly in complexity with the volume of data that we analyze. That is the basis for what we have created for TrendSpottr.
In parallel to my professional career, I have been a very active volunteer at ACM. I started out as a member of the Paris ACM SIGGRAPH chapter in 1985 and volunteered to help do our mailings (snail mail at the time). After taking on more responsibilities with the chapter, I was elected chair of the chapter in 1991. I was first appointed to the SIGGRAPH Local Groups Steering Committee, then became ACM Director for Chapters. Later I was successively elected SIGGRAPH Vice Chair, ACM SIG Governing Board (SGB) Vice Chair for Operations, SGB Chair, ACM SIGGRAPH President, ACM Secretary/Treasurer, ACM Vice President, and finally, in 2010, I was elected ACM President. My term as ACM President has just ended on July 1st. Vint Cerf is our new President. I continue to serve on the ACM Executive Committee in my role as immediate Past President.
(Note- About ACM
ACM, the Association for Computing Machinery www.acm.org, is the world’s largest educational and scientific computing society, uniting computing educators, researchers and professionals to inspire dialogue, share resources and address the field’s challenges. )
Ajay- What sets Trendspotter apart from other startups out there in terms of vision in trying to achieve a more coherent experience on the web.
 
Alain- The Basic difference with other approaches that we are aware of is that we have developed an incremental solution that calculates the results on the fly as the data streams in. Our evaluators are based on solid mathematical foundations that have proven their usefulness over time. One way to describe what we do is to think of it as signal processing where the tweets are the signal and our evaluators are like triggers that tell you what elements of the signal have the characteristics that we are filtering for (velocity and acceleration). One key result of using this approach is that our unit cost per tweet analyzed does not go up with increased volume. Using more traditional data analysis approaches involving an implicit sort would imply a complexity of N*log(N), where N is the volume of tweets being analyzed. That would imply that the cost per tweet analyzed would go up with the volume of tweets. Our approach was designed to avoid that, so that we can maintain a cap on our unit costs of analysis, no matter what volume of data we analyze.
Ajay- What do you think is the future of big data visualization going to look like? What are some of the technologies that you are currently bullish on?
Alain- I see several trends that would have deep impact on Big Data visualization. I firmly believe that with large amounts of data, visualization is key tool for understanding both the structure and the relationships that exist between data elements. Let’s focus on some of the key things that are pushing in this direction:
  • the volume of data that is available is growing at a rate we have never seen before. Cisco has measured an 8 fold increase in the volume of IP traffic over the last 5 years and predicts that we will reach the zettabyte of data over IP in 2016
  • more of the data is becoming publicly available. This isn’t only on social networks such as Facebook and twitter, but joins a more general trend involving open research initiatives and open government programs
  • the desired time to get meaningful results is going down dramatically. In the past 5 years we have seen the half life of data on Facebook, defined as the amount of time that half of the public reactions to any given post (likes, shares., comments) take place, go from about 12 hours to under 3 hours currently
  • our access to the net is always on via mobile device. You are always connected.
  • the CPU and GPU capabilities of mobile devices is huge (an iPhone has 10 times the compute power of a Cray-1 and more graphics capabilities than early SGI workstations)
Put all of these observations together and you quickly come up with a massive opportunity to analyze data visually on the go as it happens no matter where you are. We can’t afford to have to wait for results. When something of interest occurs we need to be aware of it immediately.
Ajay- What are some of the applications we could use Trendspottr. Could we predict events like Arab Spring, or even the next viral thing.
 
Alain- TrendSpottr won’t predict what will happen next. What it *will* do is alert you immediately when it happens. You can think of it like a smoke detector. It doesn’t tell that a fire will take place, but it will save your life when a fire does break out.
Typical uses for TrendSpottr are
  • thought leadership by tracking content that your readership is interested in via TrendSpottr you can be seen as a thought leader on the subject by being one of the first to share trending content on a given subject. I personally do this on my Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/alain.chesnais) and have seen my klout score go up dramatically as a result
  • brand marketing to be able to know when something is trending about your brand and take advantage of it as it happens.
  • competitive analysis to see what is being said about two competing elements. For instance, searching TrendSpottr for “Obama OR Romney” gives you a very good understanding about how social networks are reacting to each politician. You can also do searches like “$aapl OR $msft OR $goog” to get a sense of what is the current buzz for certain hi tech stocks.
  • understanding your impact in real time to be able to see which of the content that you are posting is trending the most on social media so that you can highlight it on your main page. So if all of your content is hosted on common domain name (ourbrand.com), searching for ourbrand.com will show you the most active of your site’s content. That can easily be set up by putting a TrendSpottr widget on your front page

Ajay- What are some of the privacy guidelines that you keep in  mind- given the fact that you collect individual information but also have government agencies as potential users.

 
Alain- We take privacy very seriously and anonymize all of the data that we collect. We don’t keep explicit records of the data we collected through the various incoming streams and only store the aggregate results of our analysis.
About-
Alain Chesnais is immediate Past President of ACM, elected for the two-year term beginning July 1, 2010.Chesnais studied at l’Ecole Normale Supérieure de l’Enseignement Technique and l’Université de Paris where he earned a Maîtrise de Mathematiques, a Maitrise de Structure Mathématique de l’Informatique, and a Diplôme d’Etudes Approfondies in Compuer Science. He was a high school student at the United Nations International School in New York, where, along with preparing his International Baccalaureate with a focus on Math, Physics and Chemistry, he also studied Mandarin Chinese.Chesnais recently founded Visual Transitions, which specializes in helping companies move to HTML 5, the newest standard for structuring and presenting content on the World Wide Web. He was the CTO of SceneCaster.com from June 2007 until April 2010, and was Vice President of Product Development at Tucows Inc. from July 2005 – May 2007. He also served as director of engineering at Alias|Wavefront on the team that received an Oscar from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for developing the Maya 3D software package.

Prior to his election as ACM president, Chesnais was vice president from July 2008 – June 2010 as well as secretary/treasurer from July 2006 – June 2008. He also served as president of ACM SIGGRAPH from July 2002 – June 2005 and as SIG Governing Board Chair from July 2000 – June 2002.

As a French citizen now residing in Canada, he has more than 20 years of management experience in the software industry. He joined the local SIGGRAPH Chapter in Paris some 20 years ago as a volunteer and has continued his involvement with ACM in a variety of leadership capacities since then.

About Trendspottr.com

TrendSpottr is a real-time viral search and predictive analytics service that identifies the most timely and trending information for any topic or keyword. Our core technology analyzes real-time data streams and spots emerging trends at their earliest acceleration point — hours or days before they have become “popular” and reached mainstream awareness.

TrendSpottr serves as a predictive early warning system for news and media organizations, brands, government agencies and Fortune 500 companies and helps them to identify emerging news, events and issues that have high viral potential and market impact. TrendSpottr has partnered with HootSuite, DataSift and other leading social and big data companies.

Interview Michal Kosinski , Concerto Web Based App using #Rstats

Here is an interview with Michal Kosinski , leader of the team that has created Concerto – a web based application using R. What is Concerto? As per http://www.psychometrics.cam.ac.uk/page/300/concerto-testing-platform.htm

Concerto is a web based, adaptive testing platform for creating and running rich, dynamic tests. It combines the flexibility of HTML presentation with the computing power of the R language, and the safety and performance of the MySQL database. It’s totally free for commercial and academic use, and it’s open source

Ajay-  Describe your career in science from high school to this point. What are the various stats platforms you have trained on- and what do you think about their comparative advantages and disadvantages?  

Michal- I started with maths, but quickly realized that I prefer social sciences – thus after one year, I switched to a psychology major and obtained my MSc in Social Psychology with a specialization in Consumer Behaviour. At that time I was mostly using SPSS – as it was the only statistical package that was taught to students in my department. Also, it was not too bad for small samples and the rather basic analyses I was performing at that time.

 

My more recent research performed during my Mphil course in Psychometrics at Cambridge University followed by my current PhD project in social networks and research work at Microsoft Research, requires significantly more powerful tools. Initially, I tried to squeeze as much as possible from SPSS/PASW by mastering the syntax language. SPSS was all I knew, though I reached its limits pretty quickly and was forced to switch to R. It was a pretty dreary experience at the start, switching from an unwieldy but familiar environment into an unwelcoming command line interface, but I’ve quickly realized how empowering and convenient this tool was.

 

I believe that a course in R should be obligatory for all students that are likely to come close to any data analysis in their careers. It is really empowering – once you got the basics you have the potential to use virtually any method there is, and automate most tasks related to analysing and processing data. It is also free and open-source – so you can use it wherever you work. Finally, it enables you to quickly and seamlessly migrate to other powerful environments such as Matlab, C, or Python.

Ajay- What was the motivation behind building Concerto?

Michal- We deal with a lot of online projects at the Psychometrics Centre – one of them attracted more than 7 million unique participants. We needed a powerful tool that would allow researchers and practitioners to conveniently build and deliver online tests.

Also, our relationships with the website designers and software engineers that worked on developing our tests were rather difficult. We had trouble successfully explaining our needs, each little change was implemented with a delay and at significant cost. Not to mention the difficulties with embedding some more advanced methods (such as adaptive testing) in our tests.

So we created a tool allowing us, psychometricians, to easily develop psychometric tests from scratch an publish them online. And all this without having to hire software developers.

Ajay -Why did you choose R as the background for Concerto? What other languages and platforms did you consider. Apart from Concerto, how else do you utilize R in your center, department and University?

Michal- R was a natural choice as it is open-source, free, and nicely integrates with a server environment. Also, we believe that it is becoming a universal statistical and data processing language in science. We put increasing emphasis on teaching R to our students and we hope that it will replace SPSS/PASW as a default statistical tool for social scientists.

Ajay -What all can Concerto do besides a computer adaptive test?

Michal- We did not plan it initially, but Concerto turned out to be extremely flexible. In a nutshell, it is a web interface to R engine with a built-in MySQL database and easy-to-use developer panel. It can be installed on both Windows and Unix systems and used over the network or locally.

Effectively, it can be used to build any kind of web application that requires a powerful and quickly deployable statistical engine. For instance, I envision an easy to use website (that could look a bit like SPSS) allowing students to analyse their data using a web browser alone (learning the underlying R code simultaneously). Also, the authors of R libraries (or anyone else) could use Concerto to build user-friendly web interfaces to their methods.

Finally, Concerto can be conveniently used to build simple non-adaptive tests and questionnaires. It might seem to be slightly less intuitive at first than popular questionnaire services (such us my favourite Survey Monkey), but has virtually unlimited flexibility when it comes to item format, test flow, feedback options, etc. Also, it’s free.

Ajay- How do you see the cloud computing paradigm growing? Do you think browser based computation is here to stay?

Michal - I believe that cloud infrastructure is the future. Dynamically sharing computational and network resources between online service providers has a great competitive advantage over traditional strategies to deal with network infrastructure. I am sure the security concerns will be resolved soon, finishing the transformation of the network infrastructure as we know it. On the other hand, however, I do not see a reason why client-side (or browser) processing of the information should cease to exist – I rather think that the border between the cloud and personal or local computer will continually dissolve.

About

Michal Kosinski is Director of Operations for The Psychometrics Centre and Leader of the e-Psychometrics Unit. He is also a research advisor to the Online Services and Advertising group at the Microsoft Research Cambridge, and a visiting lecturer at the Department of Mathematics in the University of Namur, Belgium. You can read more about him at http://www.michalkosinski.com/

You can read more about Concerto at http://code.google.com/p/concerto-platform/ and http://www.psychometrics.cam.ac.uk/page/300/concerto-testing-platform.htm

Interview JJ Allaire Founder, RStudio

Here is an interview with JJ Allaire, founder of RStudio. RStudio is the IDE that has overtaken other IDE within the R Community in terms of ease of usage. On the eve of their latest product launch, JJ talks to DecisionStats on RStudio and more.

Ajay-  So what is new in the latest version of RStudio and how exactly is it useful for people?

JJ- The initial release of RStudio as well as the two follow-up releases we did last year were focused on the core elements of using R: editing and running code, getting help, and managing files, history, workspaces, plots, and packages. In the meantime users have also been asking for some bigger features that would improve the overall work-flow of doing analysis with R. In this release (v0.95) we focused on three of these features:

Projects. R developers tend to have several (and often dozens) of working contexts associated with different clients, analyses, data sets, etc. RStudio projects make it easy to keep these contexts well separated (with distinct R sessions, working directories, environments, command histories, and active source documents), switch quickly between project contexts, and even work with multiple projects at once (using multiple running versions of RStudio).

Version Control. The benefits of using version control for collaboration are well known, but we also believe that solo data analysis can achieve significant productivity gains by using version control (this discussion on Stack Overflow talks about why). In this release we introduced integrated support for the two most popular open-source version control systems: Git and Subversion. This includes changelist management, file diffing, and browsing of project history, all right from within RStudio.

Code Navigation. When you look at how programmers work a surprisingly large amount of time is spent simply navigating from one context to another. Modern programming environments for general purpose languages like C++ and Java solve this problem using various forms of code navigation, and in this release we’ve brought these capabilities to R. The two main features here are the ability to type the name of any file or function in your project and go immediately to it; and the ability to navigate to the definition of any function under your cursor (including the definition of functions within packages) using a keystroke (F2) or mouse gesture (Ctrl+Click).

Ajay- What’s the product road map for RStudio? When can we expect the IDE to turn into a full fledged GUI?

JJ- Linus Torvalds has said that “Linux is evolution, not intelligent design.” RStudio tries to operate on a similar principle—the world of statistical computing is too deep, diverse, and ever-changing for any one person or vendor to map out in advance what is most important. So, our internal process is to ship a new release every few months, listen to what people are doing with the product (and hope to do with it), and then start from scratch again making the improvements that are considered most important.

Right now some of the things which seem to be top of mind for users are improved support for authoring and reproducible research, various editor enhancements including code folding, and debugging tools.

What you’ll see is us do in a given release is to work on a combination of frequently requested features, smaller improvements to usability and work-flow, bug fixes, and finally architectural changes required to support current or future feature requirements.

While we do try to base what we work on as closely as possible on direct user-feedback, we also adhere to some core principles concerning the overall philosophy and direction of the product. So for example the answer to the question about the IDE turning into a full-fledged GUI is: never. We believe that textual representations of computations provide fundamental advantages in transparency, reproducibility, collaboration, and re-usability. We believe that writing code is simply the right way to do complex technical work, so we’ll always look for ways to make coding better, faster, and easier rather than try to eliminate coding altogether.

Ajay -Describe your journey in science from a high school student to your present work in R. I noticed you have been very successful in making software products that have been mostly proprietary products or sold to companies.

Why did you get into open source products with RStudio? What are your plans for monetizing RStudio further down the line?

JJ- In high school and college my principal areas of study were Political Science and Economics. I also had a very strong parallel interest in both computing and quantitative analysis. My first job out of college was as a financial analyst at a government agency. The tools I used in that job were SAS and Excel. I had a dim notion that there must be a better way to marry computation and data analysis than those tools, but of course no concept of what this would look like.

From there I went more in the direction of general purpose computing, starting a couple of companies where I worked principally on programming languages and authoring tools for the Web. These companies produced proprietary software, which at the time (between 1995 and 2005) was a workable model because it allowed us to build the revenue required to fund development and to promote and distribute the software to a wider audience.

By 2005 it was however becoming clear that proprietary software would ultimately be overtaken by open source software in nearly all domains. The cost of development had shrunken dramatically thanks to both the availability of high-quality open source languages and tools as well as the scale of global collaboration possible on open source projects. The cost of promoting and distributing software had also collapsed thanks to efficiency of both distribution and information diffusion on the Web.

When I heard about R and learned more about it, I become very excited and inspired by what the project had accomplished. A group of extremely talented and dedicated users had created the software they needed for their work and then shared the fruits of that work with everyone. R was a platform that everyone could rally around because it worked so well, was extensible in all the right ways, and most importantly was free (as in speech) so users could depend upon it as a long-term foundation for their work.

So I started RStudio with the aim of making useful contributions to the R community. We started with building an IDE because it seemed like a first-rate development environment for R that was both powerful and easy to use was an unmet need. Being aware that many other companies had built successful businesses around open-source software, we were also convinced that we could make RStudio available under a free and open-source license (the AGPLv3) while still creating a viable business. At this point RStudio is exclusively focused on creating the best IDE for R that we can. As the core product gets where it needs to be over the next couple of years we’ll then also begin to sell other products and services related to R and RStudio.

About-

http://rstudio.org/docs/about

Jjallaire

JJ Allaire

JJ Allaire is a software engineer and entrepreneur who has created a wide variety of products including ColdFusion,Windows Live WriterLose It!, and RStudio.

From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_J._Allaire
In 1995 Joseph J. (JJ) Allaire co-founded Allaire Corporation with his brother Jeremy Allaire, creating the web development tool ColdFusion.[1] In March 2001, Allaire was sold to Macromedia where ColdFusion was integrated into the Macromedia MX product line. Macromedia was subsequently acquired by Adobe Systems, which continues to develop and market ColdFusion.
After the sale of his company, Allaire became frustrated at the difficulty of keeping track of research he was doing using Google. To address this problem, he co-founded Onfolio in 2004 with Adam Berrey, former Allaire co-founder and VP of Marketing at Macromedia.
On March 8, 2006, Onfolio was acquired by Microsoft where many of the features of the original product are being incorporated into the Windows Live Toolbar. On August 13, 2006, Microsoft released the public beta of a new desktop blogging client called Windows Live Writer that was created by Allaire’s team at Microsoft.
Starting in 2009, Allaire has been developing a web-based interface to the widely used R technical computing environment. A beta version of RStudio was publicly released on February 28, 2011.
JJ Allaire received his B.A. from Macalester College (St. Paul, MN) in 1991.
RStudio-

RStudio is an integrated development environment (IDE) for R which works with the standard version of R available from CRAN. Like R, RStudio is available under a free software license. RStudio is designed to be as straightforward and intuitive as possible to provide a friendly environment for new and experienced R users alike. RStudio is also a company, and they plan to sell services (support, training, consulting, hosting) related to the open-source software they distribute.