The next BriefingsDirect innovation interview explores the use of a hackathon approach to unlock creativity in the search for better use of big data for analytics. We will hear how Thomson Reuters in London sought to foster innovation and derive more value from its vast trove of business and market information.
The result: A worldwide virtual hackathon that brought together developers and data scientists to uncover new applications, visualizations, and services to make all data actionable and impactful.
To learn more about getting developers on board the big-data analysis train, BriefingsDirect sat down with Chris Blatchford, Director of Platform Technology in the IT organization at Thomson Reuters in London. The discussion is moderated by me, Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions.
Here are some excerpts:
Blatchford: Thomson Reuters is the world’s leading source of intelligent information. We provide data across the finance, legal, news, IP, and science, tax, and accounting industries through product and service offerings, combining industry expertise with innovative technology.
Gardner: It’s hard to think of an organization where data and analysis is more important. It’s so core to your very mission.
Blatchford: Absolutely. We take data from a variety of sources. We have our own original data, third-party sources, open-data sources, and augmented information, as well as all of the original content we generate on a daily basis. For example, our journalists in the field provide original news content to us directly from all over the globe. We also have third-party licensed data that we further enrich and distribute to our clients through a variety of tools and services.
Gardner: And therein lies the next trick, what to do with the data once you have it. About this hackathon, how did you come up upon that as an idea to foster innovation?
Big, Open, Linked Data
Blatchford: One of our big projects or programs of work currently is, as everyone else is doing, big data. We have an initiative called BOLD, which is Big, Open, Linked Data, headed up by Dan Bennett. The idea behind the project is to take all of the data that we ingest and host within Thomson Reuters, all of those various sources that I just explained, stream all of that into a central repository, cleanse the data, centralize it, extract meaningful information, and subsequently expose it to the rest of the businesses for use in their specific industry applications.
As well as creating a central data lake of content, we also needed to provide the tools and services that allow businesses to access the content; here we have both developed our own software and licensed existing tools.
So, we could demonstrate that we could build big-data tools using our internal expertise, and we could demonstrate that we could plug in third-party specific applications that could perform analysis on that data. What we hadn’t proved was that we could plug in third-party technology enterprise platforms in order to leverage our data and to innovate across that data, and that’s where HP came in.
HP was already engaged with us in a number of areas, and I got to speaking with their Big Data Group around their big data solutions. IDOL OnDemand came up. This is now part of the Haven OnDemand platform. We saw some synergies there between what we were doing with the big-data platform and what they could offer us in terms of their IDOL OnDemand API’s. That’s where the good stuff started.
Gardner: Software developers, from the very beginning, have had a challenge of knowing their craft, but not knowing necessarily what their end users want them to do with that craft. So the challenge — whether it’s in a data environment, a transactional environment or interface, or gaming — has often been how to get the requirements of what you’re up to into the minds of the developers in a way that they can work with. How did the hackathon contribute to solving that?
Blatchford: That’s a really good question. That’s actually one of the biggest challenges big data has in general. We approach big data in one of two ways. You have very specific use cases, for example, consider a lawyer working on a particular case for a client, it would be useful for them to analyze prior cases with similar elements. If they are able to extract entities and relevant attributes, they may be able to understand the case final decision, or perhaps glean information that is relevant to their current case.
Then you have the other approach, which is much more about exploration, discovering new insights, trends, and patterns. That’s similar to the the approach we wanted to take with the hackathon — provide the data and the tools to our developers for them just to go and play with the data.
We didn’t necessarily want to give them any requirements around specific products or services. It was just, “Look, here is a cool platform with some really cool APIs and some capabilities. Here is some nice juicy data. Tell us what we should be doing? What can we come up with from your perspective on the world?”
A lot of the time, these engineers are overlooked. They’re not necessarily the most extroverted of people by the nature of what they do and so they miss chances, they miss opportunities, and that’s something we really wanted to change.
Gardner: It’s fascinating the way to get developers to do what you want them to do is to give them no requirements.
Interesting end products
Blatchford: Indeed. That can result in some interesting end-products. But, by and large, our engineers are more commercially savvy than most, hence we can generally rely on them to produce something that will be compelling to the business. Many of our developers have side projects and personal development projects they work on outside of the realms of their job requirement. We should be encouraging this sort of behavior.
Gardner: So what did you get when you gave them no requirements? What happened?
Blatchford: We had 25 teams that submitted their ideas. We boiled that down to 7 finalists based upon a set of preliminary criteria, and out of those 7, we decided upon our first-, second-, and third-place winners. Those three end results were actually taken, or are currently going through a product review, to potentially be implemented into our product lines.
The overall winner was an innovative UI design for mobile devices, allowing users to better navigate our content on tablets and phones. There was a sentiment analysis tool, that allowed users to paste in news stories or any news content source on the web and extract sentiment from that news story.
And the other was more of an internally focused, administrative exploration tool, that allowed us to more intuitively navigate our own data, which perhaps doesn’t initially seem as exciting as the other two, but is actually a hugely useful application for us.
Gardner: Now, how does IDOL OnDemand come to play in this? IDOL is the ability to take any kind of information, for the most part, apply a variety of different services to it, and then create analysis as a service. How did that play into the hackathon? How did the developers use that?
Blatchford: Initially the developers looked at the original 50-plus APIs that IDOL OnDemand provides, and you have everything in there from facial recognition, to OCR, to text analytics, to indexing, all sorts of cool stuff. Those, in themselves, provided sufficient capabilities to produce some compelling applications, but our developers also utilized Thomson Reuters API’s and resources to further augment the IDOL platform.
This was very important, as it demonstrated that not only could we plug in an Enterprise analytics tool into our data, but also that it would fit well with our own capabilities.
Gardner: And HP Big Data also had a role in this. How did that provide value?
Blatchford: The expertise. We should remember we stood this hackathon up from inception to completion in a little over one month, and that’s I think pretty impressive by any measure.
The actual hackathon lasted for five days. We gave the participants a week to get familiar with the APIs, but they really didn’t need that long because the documentation behind the APIs on IDOL OnDemand and the kind of “try it now” functionality it has was amazing. This is what the engineers and the developers were telling me. That’s not my own words.
The Big Data Group was able to stand this whole thing up within a month, a huge amount of effort on HP’s side that we never really saw. That ultimately resulted in a hugely successful virtual global hackathon. This wasn’t a physical hackathon. This was a purely virtual hackathon the world over.
Gardner: HP has been very close to developers for many years, with many tools, leading tools in the market for developers. They’re familiar with the hackathon approach. It sounds like HP might have a business in hackathons as a service. You’re proving the point here.
For the benefit of our listeners, if someone else out there was interested in applying the same approach, a hackathon as a way of creating innovation, of sparking new thoughts, light bulbs going off in people’s heads, or bringing together cultures that perhaps hadn’t meshed well in the past, what would you advise them?
Blatchford: That’s a big one. First and foremost, the reason we were successful is because we had a motivated, willing partner in HP. They were able to put the full might of their resources and technology capabilities behind this event, and that along side our own efforts ultimately resulted in the events success.
That aside, you absolutely need to get the buy-in of the senior executives within an organization, get them to invest into the idea of something as open as a hackathon. A lot of hackathons are quite focused on a specific requirement. We took the opposite approach. We said, “Look, developers, engineers, go out there and do whatever you want. Try to be as innovative in your approach as possible.”
Typically, that approach is not seen as cost effective, businesses like to have defined use cases, but sometimes that can strangle innovation. Sometimes we need to loosen the reins a little.
There are also a lot of logistical checks that can help. Ensure you have clear criteria around hackathon team size and members, event objectives, rules, time frames and so on. Having these defined up front makes the whole event run much smoother.
We ran the organization of the event a little like an Agile project, with regular stand-ups and check-ins. We also stood up a dedicated internal intranet site with all the information above. Finally, we set-up user accounts on the IDOL platform early on, so the participants could familiarize themselves with the technology.
Gardner: Yeah, it really sounds like a winning combination: the hackathon model, big data as the resource to innovate on, and then IDOL OnDemand with 50 tools to apply to that. It’s a very rich combination.
Blatchford: That’s exactly right. The richness in the data was definitely a big part of this. You don’t need millions of rows of data. We provided 60,000 records of legal documents and we had about the same in patents and news content. You don’t need vast amounts of data, but you need quality data.
Then you also need a quality platform as well. In this case IDOL OnDemand.The third piece is what’s in their heads. That really was the successful formula.
Gardner: I have to ask. Of course, the pride in doing a good job goes a long way, but were there any other incentives; a new car, for example, for the winning hackathon application of the day?
Blatchford: Yeah, we offered a 1960s Mini Cooper to the winners. No, we didn’t. We did offer other incentives. There were three main incentives. The first one, and the most important one in my view, and I think in everyone’s view, was exposure to senior executives within the organization. Not just face time, but promotion of the individual within the organization. We wanted this to be about personal growth as much as it was about producing new applications.
Going back to trying to leverage your resources and give them opportunities to shine, that’s really important. That’s one of the things the hackathon really fostered — exposing our talented engineers and product managers, ensuring they are appreciated for the work they do.
We also provided an Amazon voucher incentive, and HP offered some of their tablets to the winners. So it was quite a strong winning set.
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