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Brazil, Spying, and Decentralizing Forces in Data Storage

Where policy, emerging markets, and data storage intersect–Brazil may take measures, in response to NSA activities, to ensure that certain data is stored locally. And, they are big enough for the market to take note.

The legislation, which is being written by a lawmaker in Rousseff’s Workers’ Party and is scheduled to be completed next week, would force foreign-based internet companies to maintain data centres inside Brazil that would then be governed by Brazilian privacy laws, officials said.

Internet companies operating in Brazil are currently free to put data centres wherever they like. Facebook Inc., for example, stores its global data in the United States and a new complex in Sweden.

Rousseff believes that the change would help shield Brazilians from further U.S. prying into their activities, and she is considering urging other countries to take similar measures when she speaks at the United Nations General Assembly later this month, a senior Brazilian official told Reuters.

“This would be a turning point for these companies,” the official said, naming Facebook, Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp. as examples, although they would not be the only companies affected. “If you want to work here, you will have to obey our rules.”

History and Humility: My Weekend away from Work, and the Lessons I Carry Forward

This was our first Thanksgiving in Austin, and my first Thanksgiving, in some time, away from my family of origin in the Washington, D. C. area.  In the quieter setting, I could see more clearly the historical arc that had brought this holiday into my life.  I considered that my ancestors in Lithuania, some 100 years ago, may not have known of this holiday and certainly did not celebrate it.  My family’s transatlantic migration was part of a tumultuous century that dislocated innumerable peoples.  Seen in this context, it is no wonder that I strongly feel the pull of different value systems in my daily life, and in my consideration of the direction and meaning of my life entire.

I’ve recently watched the first two seasons of Downton Abbey.  I’m not a big TV watcher, and saw my first episode only a few weeks ago.  Yes, the series is a soap opera, but the sense of the historical period, which marked the most significant change since the French Revolution, is well-delivered.  Certainly, accordant reflections affected my thoughts on Thanksgiving thoughts.

The long weekend granted me some perspective, too, on the recent intensity of activity that accords with my new job.  The drive and focus that characterize my activity as a career-changer, in a new company, suddenly seem a bit tiresome.  To what extent are they motivated by the immigrant’s desire to make something of himself in the New Land?  At the same time, I still cannot allow myself the appealing and leisurely world view of an established.  That sentiment will surprise no one.  What I find interesting, however, is the process of emerging from the profound questioning a weekend away can offer.  I’ve found, at least this time, that I have little choice but to reengage my previous professional and personal goals, even if they seem a bit less self-determined, and a bit more derivative.

What does this have to do with staying afloat in a sea of data, of the subtitle of this blog would seem to query?  Well, it is just another, in a string of reminders, that the questions we ask about a complex world are only very slightly influenced by our incisive thoughts.  Rather, we are much more deeply influenced, in our questioning, by an historical context of which we are only vaguely aware.  We do not escape from this constraint when we engage with data or with business.  Just as when we think about who we are and what we are here to do, so, too, when we ask where to target our next marketing campaign: Our preconceptions are occasionally disrupted, but we constantly return to them, out of habit, out of ignorance.  Humility increases our sensitivity to the fainter indications that our thinking is in error.  It is both an honest and a useful response to the torrent of information that surrounds us.

“Ideas” and “Things”

I began my career in the nonprofit world and, over the past few years, have been making a transition to the for-profit world.  I have experienced the transition as a move from an “idea-orientation” to a “thing-orientation.”  By that I mean that the ultimate rationale for my employment appeared to me, as a teacher and as an education researcher, to be the value I could add to people’s lives.  In the business world, it is clear that I will be held accountable for the financial value delivered, which ultimately is measured in the profit on products sold.

There are many, many nuances that could be explored here: Education does create economic value; ideas, conversely, do change the way businesses operate.  Many educators and academic researchers are measured very rigorously and feel that an “idea-orientation” becomes an unaffordable luxury; when working in a large business that produces products, conversely, many positions have very little to do with actual production and cannot be easily measured against profit/loss expectations.  And so on.

These nuances interest me but the contrast between the two different approaches I have experienced interests me more:  “Idea-orientation” is about the pleasure of deep thought, and the excitement of discovery.  “Thing-orientation” is about the humility of checking one’s aspirations against measurable results and the challenge of identifying humanizing opportunities in the midst of the swirl of externally-focused activity.

“Idea-orientation” and “thing-orientation” derive from the historical-philosophical debate between idealism and materialism.  There are real-world consequences to this debate, in the world of high-tech business today.

Ideas and Things, in the Digital Age

It’s challenging to disentangle things from ideas at all times, and the last couple of decades have provided no shortage of examples.  The development of web giants, such as Google, have helped make popular the argument that ideas are more important than things or, as is related, that electrons have come to predominate in the economy, as opposed to atoms.  The connection is that electrons, via the web, chiefly transport ideas, and do not transport traditional products.  As we interact less with products before making a purchasing decision, and more with reviews/advertisements/search results, the thought process involved in economic interactions becomes more pronounced in the mental image of the buying process.

Some of the fascination with the electron economy may be waning, as we become more familiar/comfortable with these new buying processes.  At the same time, new economic developments may serve to remind us that “things” still matter, even in a world of rapidly expanding data, enabled by the web.  For one, a company like Amazon can make moves to not only sell virtually every consumer product, but can begin to influence the way that companies buy products.  Deeper economic processes can be, yes, made to yield before the power of the web; but the control of physical product still has power, and the greater interaction with digital images and crowd-sourced reviews, do not entirely erode that power.  The future growth of 3-D printing, and crowd-sourced design, could very well make the relative predominance of things or ideas appear even fuzzier.

Supply Chain Management

I am planning to speak at a Supply Chain Management conference next week.  Supply chain management concerns itself with the entire process of moving services and products across time and space in order to optimize product manufacture, delivery, and the resultant customer satisfaction.  In many ways, it is a very “thing-oriented” field.  It provides satisfaction to those who would like to know that their efforts impact the course of tangible objects.  Studying this field in business school was, for me, a very grounding endeavor.  It helped me to focus on the aspect of business/organizational life that was my weak point, and to accordingly call into question some of my fuzzier, abstract notions.

Not surprisingly, however, I have ended up in marketing and business intelligence, both of which are a few steps removed from physical products.  Those two roles depend, to varying degrees, on qualitative and quantitative abstraction.  Conjecture is not as easily testable in these roles as it is in say, logistics or product design.  It is not as easy to draw a line from a decision to a result.

When I speak at this upcoming conference, I will have to contend with the fact that I do not actually work in the field of supply chain management.  I was invited because of my ties to organizations involved in the field (generated during business school) and because I am a pretty good public speaker.  My connections to this thing-oriented field are founded in relationships and words, which are both idea-oriented entities.  Those who know me would not find that fact surprising.

As I prepare to speak, and as I speak, I will be confronted with the choice of whether to present myself as an ideas-man who appreciates the impact a thing-oriented field has had on my thinking or whether to present myself as a thing-man who happens to have a few ideas on the side.  The second stance is more difficult for me to conjure but the first stance risks being too abstract to appeal to the audience.  Fortunately and unfortunately, the choice fascinates me.

A Window into the Incoming Gush of Data: Healthcare in Pittsburgh

I really enjoyed this piece, by Barb Darrow, about the development of healthcare-related data management at the University Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) for a number of reasons.  First of all, as the article explains, UPMC is a leader in the area and is doing some really interesting things!  Secondly, I always enjoy a good story about the economy of Pittsburgh, since it represents one of the best cases (the best case?) of transforming a US rust belt city into a 21st century City (Health care and robotics are among the key fields relevant to that success.).  Finally, and most significantly, the issues raised in the article demonstrate that mastering new levels of data management do not lead to ease and simplicity but rather, to even greater opportunities and challenges.

In the case, of UPMC, getting a head start on developing Electronic Medical Records has led, first of all, to the challenge of coordinating  independent systems across specialties.  Being able to manage enormous amounts of granular data, and to understand how to deploy that data, is one of the frontiers beyond the systems coordination step:

Doctors now try to take a more holistic view of their patients, and that requires the ability to pull together data from different sources. Imaging data is separate from surgery notes, which is separate from pharmacy data.

“If we look at big data, the idea is how to interconnect multiple points of data across the broad, biological continuum,” Shrestha said. “If the patient is diabetic, you don’t just see an endocrinologist looking at the liver in terms of liver function tests or any scans but across the biological spectrum of organs and then down to a cellular level. We look at pathology slides, reports on molecular imaging and down to the genomic levels.”

Darrow explains that data can be broken down into three buckets: imaging data, which accounts for close to 50% of UPMC’s digital information; databases, which account for about 10%; and unstructured information, such as “postoperative notes, radiology reports, discharge summaries,” which accounts for the remaining 40%.  The piece goes on to describe some of the specific technologies that are being used to address these various categories and concludes by pointing to another, even further frontier: the integrated management of pathology reports.

Big data, as the article in which I found the above reference would argue, is here to stay.  The more we know, the more we that will become knowable.  Personally, I find the challenge daunting

Cyber-Attacks on Lockheed Martin

You may have read by now about recent cyber-attacks on defense contractor Lockheed Martin.  The following quote, from Anup Ghosh, “a former senior scientist at the Pentagon’s Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency who worked on securing military networks” stuck me especially:

“I think it tells us that DHS [the US Department of Homeland Security] doesn’t know much about what’s going on.”

The increasing level of organization of cyber-attacks can surely be met, in some measure, by improved technology and increased vigilance.  But do centralized organizations such as Lockheed attract too much attention to be sustainable in a future in which the barriers to entry for sabotage are lower?  And can weapons of war, for instance, be reliably developed in organizations that are anything other than centralized?