Part 2 of my Convergence 2008 blog entries...
Kevin Schofield is the General Manager of Microsoft Research. His keynote mainly focused on data and viewing of data.
... we all live in a data intensive world. We're surrounded by it, it pervades our work lives, it increasingly pervades our personal lives. It's sort of like the Force, .., it surrounds and binds everything, and holds the universe together. And there are definitely some people who are more adept at sort of harnessing it than other people. But I think we'd all really like to be kind of data Jedi Knights, if you will. So I'm going to talk a little bit about technology and how it can help with that.
-- Kevin Schofield
One of the more interesting parts of his keynote was the focus on data presentation. In one case, Mr. Schofield used the 19th century drawing by Charles Joseph Minard as an example of good presentation showing six different dimensions of the data in an easy to read presentation layout (view drawing). It's a pretty famous drawing showing Napoleon's march from Poland to Moscow. The drawing illustrates latitude/longitude, numbers of troop, direction, and temperature.
Data center sensors
Next, he shows a new project where Microsoft are playing sensors in their data centers. This project allows the data center IT teams to monitor heat of the servers in a real-time and over-time trends. This is also linked into the HVAC system, so they can the operation of the individual HVAC units. Combined with a nice little heat map, you can easily see which side of the room is producing more heat and which HVAC units are running at 100%. The sensors also show CPU utilization, disk utilization, rack utilization, etc.
Space Shuttle Challenger
The next set of slides showed how the right data in the wrong presentation format can lead to disastrous results. He used the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion after takeoff in 1986 as the example. In this example, the engineers had presented all of the data needed to make the decision to not launch the space shuttle. However, the diagram was so complicated it even had the statement of "don't use this chart unless somebody gives you an oral explanation" posted on the diagram footer. The engineers couldn't explain or illustrate the problem very effectively to their executives.
While I looked at this diagram, I couldn't see the potential problem. However, once the data was change into a more easier to read format, it became obvious to everyone how the launch would result in O-ring failure.
- The diagram used to brief NASA by the Morton-Thiokol engineers.
- Revised diagram by the Rogers commission.
Next, he focused on how we, as humans, have a pretty good spatial memory. We can remember everything in our house, but have problems remembering where the most recent document or file is on the computer. Microsoft is experimenting with storing and retrieving data in a 3D manner instead of the usually 2D input.
They showed the results of a survey, where they created a simple 3D (inverted plane) and had subjects bring their own photos and file them in groups/clusters and placed them somewhere. Then three months later (without seeing it), nearly everyone remembered exactly where they put each photograph.
They said that they are also experimenting with filing Internet Explorer bookmarks in a 3D environment.
Most everyone has already seen these charts by Gapminder. They were pretty popular around the Internet a few years ago.
Next, Mr. Schofield showed off a Microsoft Research tool that looked similar to the Grokker enterprise solution that I experimented with a few years ago. The user interface was very similar to Grokker where it created clusters of related content that you drill down into, in other words an ontology visualization user interface (PDF).
John Snow was an early 19th century physician living in England during the Cholera epidemic. Back then, they didn't understand much about Cholera nor how it spread.
Working with a local priest, he mapped out the locations of the people who became infected and then added the locations of the city's drinking wells. He discovered that the majority of people who were sick were located close to a single well. At the time, most people thought it was caused by "bad air", but he thought it had something to do with the water.
Microsoft Research Projects
Research Project 1: 3D model of all neural circuitry of the brain
Microsoft is also making some pretty cool 3D data visualizations. One of the projects is to map all of the neural circuitry of the brain. This would allow researches to "fly around" the brain and look at the nervous system in 3D.
Research Project 2: Environmental data repository
The next project demonstrated was the FluxData project.
[The] database consists of over 900 site-years of data from over 170 eddy covariance measurement sites. Major efforts were made over the past year to harmonize, standardize and gap-fill the ‘raw’ 30-minute data records submitted by participants. The database also includes value added products like gross primary productivity, ecosystem respiration, climate and site characteristic information.
Research Project 3: World Wide Telescope
Finally, what I consider the coolest research project demonstrated... The World Wide Telescope project. Basically, it's like Google Earth or Virtual Earth in space. You can fly around to all of the solar systems and galaxies and turn on space imagery and data collected by various astronomery agencies and groups.
Most scientific data will never be directly examined by scientists; rather it will be put into online databases where it will be analyzed and summarized by computer programs. Scientists increasingly see their instruments through online scientific archives and analysis tools, rather than examining the raw data. Today this analysis is primarily driven by scientists asking queries, but scientific archives are becoming active databases that self-organize and recognize interesting and anomalous facts as data arrives. In some fields, data from many different archives can be cross-correlated to produce new insights. Astronomy presents an excellent example of these trends; and, federating Astronomy archives presents interesting challenges for computer scientists.
-- Microsoft Research paper, 2002
It also appears that Google is working towards their own Google Telescope project. Microsoft's telescope will go live in a few weeks and I believe that Google's project is still under development.
Lastly, they showed a video of a game created for kids to teach them how to program. The game allowed the kids to select their character and program reactions. For example, "when [creature] sees [snake] then [run away]". With various levels of reaction programming, the kids were able to watch their creation walk around and interact with it's environment. The game was created for the XBOX and it looked pretty interesting.