Max Milhan

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A Month Later: Google Flu Update

A month ago I blogged about Google Flu Trends measurements of flu-related search terms and how it related to official data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. As it turns out, flu cases came in quite a bit below what Google was predicting.

“Flu Trends is meant to be a complementary tool to the surveillance systems used by the CDC. Since its initial launch in 2008 and through this flu season, Flu Trends has accurately predicted the start and peak time of flu season. However, this season our models estimated a higher influenza like illness rate than the Centers for Disease Control in some regions. As we do each year, we will be performing a model analysis and potential model update to improve the accuracy of the tool.”

–from the article linked below

Derrick Harris at GigaOM took a look at the disparity in an interesting piece called Google’s flu snafu and the reliability of web data. In the article, he also looks at individual reporting data or at Twitter data. His conclusion? Data collection has its flaws and, to be effective, users have to take into account the possible drawbacks of a proposed method. It’s not rocket science, but it makes a lot of sense.

The Evolution of the ‘Internet of Things’

You know those days when you wonder if you locked up the house and if you left the lights on? What if your spouse locks their keys inside? Thanks to what many are beginning to call the ‘internet of things’, those hassles can be addressed with technology available today. In the future, our home automation could do all of this more easily while learning and adapting to our preferences.

Read the rest of the article here.


Amazon Web Services Infrastructure

Amazon Web Services, which Amazon began offering in 2006, is a service provided to many important products that people use every day. NASA, Netflix, reddit, Foursquare, Dropbox and Pinterest all use Amazon Web Services to power their service offerings and to be billed dynamically based on usage. WIRED had a great write-up about the service and the engineering behind it.

For Netflix, Amazon’s pay-as-you go computing services are the ideal. Netflix gets a big spike of movie-watchers hitting its website on Sunday night, and then by Monday morning, most of those people are gone. With Amazon, it can grab the resources it needs when it needs them and let them go when it doesn’t. But [Netflix] and company must also trust that Amazon can keep its massive operation up and running at all times — and keep prices well below the cost of doing it yourself.

Rather than using some products off-the-shelf, Amazon is committed to engineering its own solutions that work especially well for their uses. Because of the high-demands of its customers, all Amazon data centers are highly engineered for maximum uptime. Fun fact: the engineer responsible for Amazon’s data center infrastructure recently wrote a blog on the power outage during the Super Bowl and what could be done to prevent it in the future.

Smartphone Apps & Nostalgia Marketing

Remember playing Snake on your first cell phone? Or maybe, like me, playing Snake on your mom’s first cell phone? Apps  for iPhone and Android that mimic the original game have millions of downloads.

Better yet, remember the Tamagotchi? This little pixel monster would beep in your pocket until you digitally fed or picked up after it and also happened to be the bane of school teachers. Now an app has been released that allows smartphone users (Android only for now, with iOS in the works) to relive that experience. Both Wired and Mashable covered the topic of the new Tamagotchi app. “The app’s expected audience, says Sync Beatz CMO Shin Ueno, are 22- to 29-year-olds who carried their Tamagotchis to school — and then had them confiscated in class in the late ’90s.”

This demographic coincidentally corresponds nicely to the leading age group of smartphone users.


In an age of Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja, who would rather play with a Tamagotchi? The answer – anybody with a fond memory of a childhood craze.

Agile: Every Journey Starts with a Single Step

Agile development methodologies have a number of important tenets, but one of them is a short time to market. An agile team decides the first core functionality, builds it and gets feedback on it. It’s like picking out the corner pieces of a puzzle to start. Then each iteration adds a few pieces to the puzzle until it looks right.

Lightning rarely strikes. Instead, achievement is often the result of stepwise progress, of doing something increasingly difficult until you get the result you seek … Repeating easy tasks again and again gets you not very far. Attacking only steep cliffs where no progress is made isn’t particularly effective either. No, the best path is an endless series of difficult (but achievable) hills.

– Seth Godin

Sounds a lot like an endorsement of agile to me!


Seth Godin

Seth Godin on Taking the Plunge

As individuals, we like to be reassured that we’re making the right decision. Most of the time we don’t need the exact plan, but some relevant information. Seth Godin points out that, in many instances, we over-rely on the exact road map when in fact there is likely a problem and solution that is close enough:

The search for the exact case study or the exact prescription is the work of the resistance, a clever way to stay safe, to protect yourself from your boss or your self-talk. If you wait for the perfect map before departing on your journey, you’ll never have to leave.

It’s also true, though, that you have never once had to solve a problem that is exactly different from what’s gone down before. We’d like to romanticize our problems as unique, as the one and only perfectly difficult situation that is the result of a confluence of unrepeatable, unique causes.

Think of your Google searches. There may not be someone with your exact same symptoms, but you’ll probably get a good idea of what you’re feeling. Maybe nobody has posted about how to make your specific VCR (still using VHS, really?!) stop blinking 12:00, but somebody may have shared how they fixed theirs (got a DVD player).


Data Analytics: Google Flu Trends

Many news outlets have reported that this year’s flu season has hit early, is unusually strong and will result in the worst flu season in a decade. I recently discovered Google Flu Trends, which is a project based on Google Trends. Since Google performs 4.7 billion searches per day, they are sitting on a mountain of search data. That data can be investigated using Google Trends to determine what people are searching for.

Google Flu Trends has modeled their approach to compare to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and to give some insight as to the location and intensity of the flu spread. They accomplished this by determining which search terms were a strong indicator of flu infection and determining where people are searching for those terms. If you’re curious, here’s a more in-depth explanation for how Flu Trends works. Google’s data agrees that this year’s flu season has been much worse than previous years: (more…)

If you’re not doing crazy things, you’re doing the wrong things

Investing in innovation is a gamble that usually ends in flop or fortune. Frequently today it falls to startups to make those wagers as they may have less to lose. Seth Godin argues instead that “with great power comes great irresponsibility” and that existing companies don’t have to always play the safest route and ought to invest in innovation since a single failed attempt doesn’t mean that the company will fail.

Organizations tend to view “responsiblity” as doing the safe, proven and traditional tasks, because to do anything else is too risky. The more successful they become, the less inclined they are to explore the edges.

In fact, organizations with reach and leverage ought to be taking more risks, doing more generous work and creating bolder art. That’s the most responsible thing they can do.

In an interview with Wired, Google co-founder Larry Page echoed a similar sentiment. When asked about Google’s ambitious culture, Page replied, “It’s natural for people to want to work on things that they know aren’t going to fail. But incremental improvement is guaranteed to be obsolete over time. Especially in technology, where you know there’s going to be non-incremental change.”


Customer Perspective: Some Do Prefer Blondes

For years, Starbucks has served only dark roast coffee drinks, implying that the dark roast was a better roast and appealed to everybody.

I’ve previously written about a very interesting TED talk where Malcolm Gladwell discusses the trend toward understanding customer preferences instead of relying on one absolute “best” product.  Gladwell actually mentions coffee at about the 16:40 mark in his speech. As it turns out, Starbucks has recently taken that same perspective to heart as well. Having realized that, 1. some people do not prefer dark roast coffees and, 2. those people were exchanging their currency for lighter roasts elsewhere, Starbucks has recently expanded its lineup to include blonde roasts as well. (more…)

Van Halen, Brown M&Ms and Quality Control

I saw an interesting video today about attention to detail and quality control. In the video, David Lee Roth describes a tactic that the band Van Halen used to test for attention to detail and be warned of possible red flags in the preparation of large shows.

In the video Roth explains that they used very specific lighting and stage equipment that had to pass certain setup specifications before the show. All of those requirements were spelled out in the (very large) contract that they used when agreeing to perform. Deep within the contract they added a requirement that there be no brown M&Ms included in the dressing room candy selection; if brown M&Ms were found, the show could be cancelled immediately. (more…)