The Times They Are A-Changin’

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside and it is ragin’
It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’

So sang Bob Dylan in The Times They Are a-Changin’ from his third album of the same name released in early 1964 which makes it 50 years old this year.

These are certainly epochal changing times as we all try to understand the combined forces that social, mobile, analytic and cloud computing are going to have on the world and how we as software architects react to them.

You may have noticed a lack of posts in this blog recently. This is partly due to my own general busyness but also due to the fact that I have been trying to understand and assimilate myself what impact these changes are likely to have on this profession of ours. Is it more of the same, just that the underlying technology is changing (again) or is it really a fundamental change in the way the world is going to work from now on? Whichever it is these are some of the themes I will be covering in upcoming posts in this (hopefully) reinvigorated blog.

I’d like to welcome you to my new place for Software Architecture Zen on the WordPress blogging platform. I’ve been running this blog over on Blogger for getting on five years now but have decided this year to gradually move over here. I hope my readers will follow me here but for now aim to put posts in both places.

The Art of the Possible

This is an edited version of a talk I recently gave to a client. The full talk used elements of my “Let’s Build a Smarter Planet” presentation which you can find starting here.

The author, entrepreneur, marketer, public speaker and blogger Seth Godin has a wonderful definition for what architects do:

Architects take existing components and assemble them in interesting and important ways.

Software architects today have at their disposal a number of ‘large grain’ components, the elements of which we can assemble in a multitude of “interesting and important” ways to make fundamental changes to the world and truly build a smarter planet. These components are shown in the diagram below.

The authors Robert Scoble and Shel Israel in their book Age of Context describe the coming together of these components (actually their components are mobile, social, data, sensors and location) as a perfect storm comparing them with the forces of nature that occasionally converge to whip up a fierce tropical storm.

Of course, like any technological development, there is a down side to all this. As Scoble and Israel point out in their book:

The more the technology knows about you, the more benefits you will receive. That can leave you with the chilling sensation that big data is watching you…

I’ve taken a look at some of this myself here.

Predicting the future is of course a notoriously tricky business. As the late, great science fiction author Aurtur C. Clarke said:

When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

The future, even five years hence, is likely to be very different from what it is now and predicting what might be or not be, even that far ahead, is not an exact science. Despite the perils of making predictions such as this IBM Research’s so called 5 in 5 predictions for this year describe five innovations that will change the way we live, from classrooms that learn to cyber guardians, within the next five years. Here are five YouTube videos that describe these innovations. Further information of 5 in 5 can be found here.

  1. The classroom will learn you.
  2. Buying local will beat online.
  3. Doctors will routinely use your DNA to keep you well.
  4. The city will help you live in it.
  5. A digital guardian will protect you online.

We already have the technology to make our planet ‘smarter’. How we use that technology is limited only by our imagination…

Disruptive Technologies, Smarter Cities and the New Oil

Last week I attended the Smart City and Government Open Data Hackathon in Birmingham, UK. The event was sponsored by IBM and my colleague Dr Rick Robinson, who writes extensively on Smarter Cities as The Urban Technologist, gave the keynote session to kick off the event. The idea of this particular hackathon was to explore ways in which various sources of open data, including the UK governments own open data initiative, could be used in new and creative ways to improve the lives of citizens and make our cities smarter as well as generally better places to live in. There were some great ideas discussed including how to predict future jobs as well as identifying citizens who had not claimed benefits to which they were entitled (and those benefits then going back into the local economy through purchases of goods and services).The phrase “data is the new oil” is by no means a new one. It was first used by Michael Palmer in 2006 in this article. Palmers says:

Data is just like crude. It’s valuable, but if unrefined it cannot really be used. It has to be changed into gas, plastic, chemicals, etc to create a valuable entity that drives profitable activity; so must data be broken down, analyzed for it to have value.

Whilst this is a nice metaphor I think I actually prefer the slight adaptation proposed by David McCandless in his TED talk: The beauty of data visualization where he coins the phrase “data is the new soil”. The reason being data needs to be worked and manipulated, just like a good farmer looking after his land, to get the best out of it. In the case of the work done by McCandless this involves creatively visualizing data to show new understandings or interpretations and, as Hans Rosling says, to let the data set change your mind set.

Certainly one way data is most definitely not like oil is in the way it is increasing at exponential rates of growth rather than rapidly diminishing. But it’s not only data. The new triumvirate of data, cloud and mobile is forging a whole new mega-trend in IT nicely captured in this equation proposed by Gabrielle Byrne at the start of this video:

e = mc(imc)2

Where:

  • e is any enterprise (or city, see later)
  • m is mobile
  • c is cloud
  • imc is in memory computing, or stream computing, the instant analysis of masses of fast changing data

This new trend is characterized by a number of incremental innovations that have taken place in IT over previous years in each of the three areas nicely captured in the figure below.

Source: CNET – Where IT is going: Cloud, mobile and data

In his blog post: The new architecture of smarter cities, Rick proposes that a Smarter City needs three essential ‘ingredients’ in order to be really characterized as ‘smart’. These are:

  • Smart cities are led from the top
  • Smart cities have a stakeholder forum
  • Smart cities invest in technology infrastructure

It is this last attribute that, when built on a suitable cloud-mobility-data platform, promises to fundamentally change not only how enterprises are set to change but also cities and even whole nations.  However it’s not just any old platform that needs to be built. In this post I discussed the concept behind so-called disruptive technology platforms and the attributes they must have. Namely:

  • A well defined set of open interfaces.
  • A critical mass of both end users and service providers.
  • Both scaleable and extremely robust.
  • An intrinsic value which cannot be obtained elsewhere.
  • Allow users to interact amongst themselves, maybe in ways that were originally envisaged.
  • Service providers must be given the right level of contract that allows them to innovate, but without actually breaking the platform.

So what might a disruptive technology platform, for a whole city, look like and what innovations might it provide? As an example of such a platform IBM have developed something they call the Intelligent Operations Center or IOC. The idea behind the IOC is to use information from a number of city agencies and departments to make smarter decisions based on rules that can be programmed into the platform. The idea then, is that the IOC will be used to anticipate problems to minimize the impact of disruptions to city services and operations as well as assist in the mobilization of resources across multiple agencies. The IOC allows aggregated data to be visualized in ways that the individual data sets cannot and for new insights to be obtained from that data.

Platforms like the IOC are only the start of what is possible in a truly smart city. They are just beginning to make use of mobile technology, data in the cloud and huge volumes of fast moving data that is analysed in real-time. Whether these platforms turn out to be really disruptive remains to be seen but if this is really the age of “new oil” then we only have the limitations of our imagination to restrict us in how we will use that data to give us valuable new insights into building smart cities.