Friday, 30 May 2008

Joining the twiterverse

Although i have had twitter for a while now, i never really used it, until last week that is, when i went to the Codeworks Thinking Digital conference and discovered full potential of tweeting.

The conference was a technical one, so maybe there were a slightly higher than average percentage of geeks attending , but around a third of the delegates were tweeting (using twitter) on their laptops, smart phones and pda’s. This connected the delegates in a very unusual way, they were able to discuss what the speakers were saying while they were saying it and trade examples of how this worked for them. They were also able to swap reference websites and arrange meeting up after the conference.

I went to the conference knowing a handful of other delegates, and got to know another handful in the networking portions of the conference, but l ended up connecting to several dozen via twitter, and even after the conference finished i’m still following many of those users and sharing knowledge with them.

For those of you not familiar with twitter it works a bit like the status up dates in facebook. You are limited to 140 characters, that are broadcast to the internet. If your friends are connected, it works a bit like instant messaging or SMS, but instead of a the private conversation between 2 individuals, it’s more like a group discussion, where many people can take part.

Because the status updates are broadcast there are many additional bits of software or web services that can manipulate the date in all sorts of ways. Some of the main ones are search services like summize, but there are also some really fun ones like twistori.

Another use of twitter is something called microblogging, as the name suggests this involves feeding the status updates straight to your blog, so your blog is frequently updated with small bits of information, especially useful if for example your are attending a conference or even a sports event.

Like texting twitter has a language and a culture of its own, with users adding @ symbols to talk to each other and #hashtags reference particular events so that they can collate there post with other tweets on the same subject.

My advice to first time twitter users would be to download a twitter client like twirl or twitterific and to begin by following tweets like the bbc news or technology tweets, to start tying your tweets into your facebook status updates, then to persuade a few friends to join you once you have the hang of it, after that start looking at friends of friends within in your areas of interest.

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Barcamp NorthEast 08

In contrast to the hyper organized Thinking Digital conference, the first Barcamp NorthEast took place this weekend. Barcamp is has been described by some as the Wikipedia of conferences (in that they are user created) but i'd say is probably best described as sort of Open Source training.

Barcamp NorthEast was held in the Artworks art gallery, set up by Alistair and Gareth, and attended by Tara Hunt (or missrogue as she is sometimes known, one of the founders of the original barcamp in the states). There was no admission charge, projectors were borrowed from a local business, the food stored and prepared in a local church, chairs came from the SVDP charity across the street and each of the attendees did a talk for free (including some of the same speakers that presented at thinking digital). There was a real buzz to the event and genuine feeling of community, people borrowed each others power packs and adaptors, and worked together to come up with presentation graphics.

In many ways this was the simplest way to run a conference in the world, in other ways a completely unique experience. I met some very interesting people, added some new contacts to twitter, and learn't some very cool stuff. It was both a pleasure and an honour to attend.

Thinking Digital 08

I was lucky enough to get tickets for the Codeworks, Thinking Digital conference last week. The conference consisted of a mix of home grown and international speakers, talking about everything technical from the latest nano technologies, to the environmental damage technology is bringing to the deep seas. There were discussions on social networking, the need for happiness, risk management, and the future of media and entertainment. With talks from leading on entrepreneurs and case studies on areas like micro financing and international arts projects.

The 3 day conference at the Sage Gateshead and Baltic, saw around 400 delegates, visiting the region. This provided a great opportunity for some social networking of the traditional kind, and of the twitter variety. For those of you not familiar with twitter, twitter is a bit like instant messaging, but rather than being a private chat between 2 people (tweets as they are known) are broadcast, so that any number of followers can pick them up at the same time. With a room of say 150 people, there were at points maybe 50 people with laptops, pdaís and smart phones having a parallel discussion about the talk, as it went on. One of the strangest aspects of the phenomenon seemed to be the openness of the group at least a few of those that were using twitter were the conference speakers themselves.

Monday, 12 May 2008

Search Engine Technology

While there has been a lot of speculation in the press recently about the Microsoft offer for Yahoo, Google have remained the unchallenged market leader for quite some time, with around 60% of the market (for english speaking counties anyway).

Over the past couple of weeks, I have been taking another look at search technology to see what's new and improved. I found several companies with products in private or public beta testing. There are 3 main areas of development; semantics, clustering and visualisation.
(to see the full presentation on search technology click here.)

Changing the way that search engines display their results, can have a dramatic effect on the speed a user can sort through vast quantities of data to find the answer they require. Microsoft tafiti uses silverlight combined with live search to allow stacking of results to different searches and dragging and dropping of data, media and sites, to a sidebar. Microsoft have also improved their integration of mapping data. Sites like Lygo return thumbnails of each website making easier to recognise sites at a glance.

Clustering was been around for a while, but recent developments in technology have made it far more effective. Sites such as Clusty provide a number of clustering options ranging from the source of the data to the content. Clusty not only uses clustering to group results, but it also uses the same complex linguistic technologies when performing a search, knowing what words or phases have the same meaning, and where the same word can have different meanings.

Quintura use clustering in a very different way, producing navigable tag clouds, that can be surfed from term to term, until you find the data you are looking for. For example i ran a search on myself, found some race results for a fell race i ran, linked to a local running club, and from there to details on the club members and finally to their blogs and websites.

The final area of development, is that of semantic searching. The current holy grail of searching is the ability to get real answers to real questions. For example you could ask "when was Elvis born" and you would probably get a fairly accurate answer. Where this seems to fall down is when the question is more subjective or where there are lots of matches, asking "when was i born" would be much more complex, as would "when was John smith born" as there are many many possible correct answers. Askwiki and wikiasearch both have beta's that work to some degree, true knowledge also have a very interesting public beta. Another key problem with this type of search is that it takes a huge amount of time and man power to enter the required data.

In many ways search engines are far superior to humans, they can reference and cross reference billions and billions of bits of data instantly. But in many ways humans still have the advantage, we start collecting data from infancy, and we are far better at understanding more subtle references. For example a human would recognise a photographic reference or a really abstract reference to a movie or popular song lyric (even if that was slightly different to the original - for example if you whistled a movie theme), a computer would find this far more difficult.