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miscellaneous

What I learned about the semantic web by traveling too much

Last year I had the ‘privilege’ of amassing enough air miles on Delta Airlines to ‘earn’ the status of Diamond Medallion – with a few miles to spare to help me get it again this year, with (maybe) a little less travel. The quotes are not meant to demean the benefits you get with the status at all – I sincerely appreciate the shorter line at security, access to the lounge and the fairly regular upgrades – but rather to point out that traveling that much, well, sort of sucks. One of my colleagues (who doesn’t get the joy of traveling as much as I do) recently asked me if there was a level above Diamond, to which I replied, yes….it’s called Divorce 😉
However, all clouds have a silver lining and in this case its a very practical lesson about how far we’ve come in getting software to do real work for us, instead of making more work for us to do. It all started with a little application for my iPhone and iPad called Tripit. I discovered Tripit through the use of another app that a fellow traveller in a long forgotten airport lounge told me about, Flight Tracker. The Flight Tracker app gives you a map with an overlay of where your flight is at any given time and has and integration with Tripit to feed it all your flight number info. I’ve long ago deleted Flight Tracker from my devices (ended up being pretty useless since I am the one flying and can’t track myself without a network – even if I could, what’s the point?), but use Tripit on a (far too) frequent basis.
My basic description of Tripit is an app that consolidates all of my travel information into one itinerary. Sounds pretty simple and to the casual observer it actually is. But if you look deeper, you realize that there’s some magic in there somewhere. The way Tripit gets my travel details is by me forwarding all of the confirmation emails I get from the flights I book, hotels I reserve and cars I rent. As soon as the hit my inbox, I forward them along to trips@tripit.com and forget about them. Tripit knows where to stick my information based on the reply-address in the email I receive. It infers a relationship between the data in the email and my account by looking at the email’s meta data. Pretty simplistic semantic leap, I know, but we’re just getting started.
What Tripit does next is where the real magic starts. Without having any prior knowledge of the format, structure or data in the email I am sending it, it is able to deconstruct the message into its core elements, and stick them into its data structure. It finds flight numbers, seat numbers, confirmation numbers and departure / arrival times from confirmation emails sent by United, Delta, Southwest and American (all the ones I have tried so far). It finds check-in, check-out, rate and confirmation info from every random hotel I have stayed at for the last year in America, Europe and Asia. It combines all this info with rental car, restaurant, tour reservations, and anything else that I can cram into my agenda by reserving ahead of time into one chronologically ordered agenda. What’s more, all the info looks the same – an airline booking with Delta looks just like one from United. A hotel reservation with the Westin looks just like one from the Hilton. As icing on the cake, it adds in a google map from airport to hotel with estimated drive times and any tolls.
Based on my experience with Tripit and its ability to digest anything I send it and turn it into structured data, I started to think about potential applications of the same principles to manufacturing (the whole reason I have to travel in the first place). Where is the product development process do we have massive amounts of unstructured data that would benefit from being put into a more structured format? The first spot that came to mind is requirements gathering. In the requirements gathering phase (which BTW I think is a giant misnomer since it shouldn’t really be a phase, but a continuous process) there are hundreds, thousands (or even millions depending on how large the market / customer base is and how long the product development cycles are) of suggestions, complaints and requests about new or existing product features.
These inputs come in the form of emails, call logs, and increasingly tweets and blog posts. Imagine a tool that would let you dump all of that input into a giant hopper and the most requested capabilities and changes would be assembled and prioritized – structured – for you in an easy to consume dashboard. Take it a step further and rather than a batch process (dumping all the inputs in at one time and seeing what comes out the other side), imagine a continuous process where new ideas, comments and suggestions where always being fed into the hopper and the top priorities and ideas where constantly in touch with the real time needs of the market. Clearly this will require some advancement from the sort of engine that Tripit uses that maps unstructured data to a predefined structured model to one that can analyze the unstructured information, define the categories based on what it finds and then map everything it finds in the rest of the input data into those categories. That might seem like a big leap, but don’t fear – search engines like Google and Bing are doing very similar things today, just to web pages rather than emails.
Terrible idea? Never work? Am I full of shit? Maybe…but this is one of those ideas that got stuck in my head like a bad song – it just keeps coming back up no matter how hard I try to think about something else. History is on my side as well: the number of ideas that have moved from the consumer to the business space in the last 10 years would make this post insufferably long if I tried to list them all here. So I am going to keep toying with it and trying to figure out if there is something there. Feel free to help me out – if you have other ideas about other spots in the product development / manufacturing loop where a magic box to convert a mess into something structured would be helpful, chime in with a comment below. On the flip side, if you see some big holes – hit me up with those as well. From 36,000 feet over Denver, that’s all for now.

Categories
miscellaneous

Dr. Eyjafjallajokull (or how I learned to stop worrying and love the ashcloud)

What a week.  I set out last Sunday from Cincinnati to Nuremberg via Detroit and Frankfurt.  I had several days of meetings scheduled with my team and various internal customers.  It was in every way a normal trip to Germany: get up in the morning, breakfast in the hotel, taxi to the office, meeting after meeting, back to the hotel, dinner, drinks, bed.  The week was over pretty quickly and on Thursday John and I found ourselves on the ICE train from Nuremberg to Frankfort (standing – no reserved seats on the 17:00 train).

While on the train, a few emails started to come in from concerned colleagues about the ash cloud from the volcano affecting travel in the UK.  “No Problem” we thought since our flight was leaving the next morning and surely it couldn’t come that far that fast.  So the next morning have some breakfast, check out and take a leisurely walk over to the airport.  The first signs of trouble where that pretty much all of the domestic flights were delayed.


We went over to the international terminal anyway and found our flight was delayed 4:30 hours.  We waited around a few more hours, which was just long enough for it to be canceled (the inbound ended up re-routing to Milan…what a surprise that must have been for the passengers on that plane!) 100 hours, 1300 kms in a car, 4 different hotels, and a few nice meals later we were home.

If you want the blow, by blow account of what happened check out my twitter stream here and here (first using the #volcano hashtag and then switching to the predominant and witty #ashtag) .  What I will attempt to do here (for myself if nothing else) is distill the learning from this ‘adventure’:

1. Decide what you want to do – get home ASAP or ride it out: this is an important first step as it pretty much makes a lot of the decisions you will need to make quickly rather easy.  Do you stay put and wait for flights to clear, or take a sure thing at another airport that will require some effort to get to?  A lot of this of course depends on where you happen to be stuck and your financial situation.  For us, we were stuck in Frankfurt (not bad, but not great) and were on the company dime (within all normal limits).  The deciding factor for us was that the situation was so fluid and no one was sure when or how things would open again.  Added to that was the fact that some airports would open for a few hours and then close again for a day or so.  We decided we wanted to get home ASAP since there wasn’t much we wanted to do in Frankfurt, it would in the long term save the company some money and if there was a window to get home we wanted to take it since it may close quickly.

2. Don’t depend on anyone to get you what you want – let me say this: our travel agency was complete shit.  They went home at 5:00 ET on Friday like every other week and weren’t available except on their ‘special emergency number’ (read: $50 just for them to answer the phone).  The first email update I got from them came to my iPhone after we landed in JFK…the second came a few hours later when we arrived in Cincinnati and was just a list of airport phone numbers and website addresses for airlines.  No one was blocking us in getting what we wanted (except maybe Odin), but no one was helping us either.  From Friday on, we were on our own.  The airlines, the airports, the hotels were all nice enough, but none of them knew any more than we did.  And were just trying to survive themselves.  While it can be a little isolating, the sooner you realize that you are on your own then quicker you will get to whatever result you want (a good time riding it out, or getting home ASAP).

3. Stay with the team – now while I just got done saying you are on your own, if you are traveling with someone or with a group (i.e. are in the same place when things go to hell and are trying to get to the same place) then do all you can to stick with them.  It does in the end make everything easier.  If you are not traveling with anyone to start, be open to the idea of teaming up with fellow stranded travelers to form a group.  There is power in numbers: one person can stand in line, another can get some foo (not loosing place in line) and third can get updates from the screens, another can be online checking options.  The path we ended up taking (driving 1300 KM in one day) would not have been possible if John and I hadn’t been traveling together.

4. Never count on bureaucrats to come up with a speedy solution – as the situation evolved it became pretty clear that half of the reason there was so little info about when things might clear up was that the main body involved in making the decision to open European airspace was a weird combination of EU bureaucrats from all different countries.  The last few days we were there it seemed they were more worried about who would get to make the decision than what the decision was.  If you are waiting on some ‘organization’ to clear up the disaster for you, you have already lost.

5. Know your geography – as we started to decide what we wanted to do and take in as much information as we could get (more on this later) it became clear to us that Germany was going to be closed for a while.  Or at least anything that was going to close anywhere else we might go (the UK excepted) would also close Germany.  So we decided we should move to a location less likely to be affected by the ash cloud sooner.  The question was where to?  After looking at the ash cloud maps from the UK weather service, the Eurocontrol service and the University of Cologne, the answer was pretty obvious: Spain or Italy.  They were both about the same distance according to google maps, but there is a pretty big mountain range between Germany and Italy and a slightly smaller one between Germany and Spain.  Spain had the added advantage of being further west, so with the prevailing winds, it was in a little less likely spot to be impacted by the cloud (a bet that turned out to be true later on).  You have to know where things are and how to get there to know what options you have.  It wouldn’t have done us much good to know that flights were fine out of Turkey in 12 hours since there is no way we could have gotten there that fast
.

6. Lines are for losers – We stood in exactly five lines the whole trip: one to get on the plane in Cincinnati, one to get on the plane in Detroit, one to get on the plane in Frankfurt (that was canceled), one to get on the plan in Barcelona and one to get on the plane in New York.  Four out of the five lines we stood in got us somewhere.  Nobody’s prefect and I saw a lot of people that did much worse.  There was a 7 hour line to get train tickets, there was a 9 hour line to get information about re-booking, there was a 2 hour line to get hotels.  Get online and get on the phone.  If nothing else, get away from the center of everything to another spot where you can get someone to help you.  If you have to be in a line then be in at least two at once: dial the number for the airline / airport/ hotel / rental agency / embassy while you are in line and double your odds.

7. Social networks keep you ahead of the game – the only way I could get reliable / real time information on what was going on was from Twitter.  I started tweeting when we got to the airport on Friday morning and amassed a nice collection of status updates, random musings, retweeting interesting info.  But in addition to sharing what we were doing, I got most of the information we used to decide what we were going to do from twitter.  There were real and instant reports on the ground from airports across Europe on what was closed and what was open.  There was info on available modes of ground transport.  There were rooms for rent (and some for free – amazing that people opened up their homes to stranded travelers around the world).  There were pointers to projections of where the ashcloud would go next from the various agencies and institutes.  When I was online, I was on twitter 80% of the time – airline, hotel and airport sites the other 20%.  If you’ve ever wondered about getting familiar with twitter and a good client application and you travel a lot, this should serve as final notice. Build a good network to follow now.  Get some people to follow you.  Learn how to use search and setup saved searches for tags.  Know how to read the posts and pickup on what the leading tag for the ‘event’ will be.  It WILL serve you well.

8. Stay ahead of the crowd – I had a marketing professor when I was getting my MBA that always used to say that by the time ‘news’ made it to the Wall Street Journal all the trades that could be made on that news to make money had already been made.  Its the same with airport information screens and announcements.  By the time ‘the crowd’ knows its too late to do anything about it.  Do everything you can to build an asymmetry of information in your favor (point 7 above is key to that) and be ready to make decisions with incomplete information but more than everyone else has.

 

 

No planes in Frankfurt on Saturday Apr 17

 

 

So even if it was open it would be a day or so before something left

9. Pack light, but with a little extra – I always pack a few more of the essentials (read socks and underwear) when I travel and these came in really handy.  I didn’t so much mind wearing the same shirt, pants or shorts a few times (I didn’t ask those around me for their opinion) but it would have been a real bugger to have to wear the same pair of socks for 3 days.  Those things are small and light so the cost of carrying them vs. the benefit of having them works in your favor.  I didn’t ever feel the need to have a second sweater, which would have taken up a lot more room.  This goes for the most important thing you should have with you as well: cash.  We had plenty of cash for our the planned portion of our trip, but when we realized we would be there for at least another few days and needed cabs, we went to ATMs to get more.  The first two we found were already out.  So whatever cash you think you need, add 50% and you should be fine.

10. Enjoy the ride – not to take away from the beliefs of any Mayans, this was not the end of the world.  Inconvenient, yes. Painful, yes.  Stress inducing, for sure.  However, we always knew we would eventually get home, we just didn’t know when.  Take some time in between to laugh and see the sites.  I may never go to the french rest stop that have 15 kinds of honey and was hand carving Ham for the patrons again.  So I enjoyed it while I was there.  Make sure to always spend a little time looking up and what’s around you.

 

For all of you that are still ‘stranded’ abroad, safe travels home and I hope you get what you are after.  For those of you that already made it home, what were your secrets?

 

 

The best birthday present anyone could have given me