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March 29 2012

Strata Week: The allure of a data haven

Here are a few of the data stories that caught my attention this week:

Sealand's siren song

Principality of Sealand coat of armsArs Technica's James Grimmelmann examines the recent history of the Principality of Sealand, a World War II anti-aircraft platform located six miles off the coast of England. Some reports claim Wikileaks is looking to relocate its servers there, ostensibly out of reach of legal threats and government interference. Why Sealand? It claims it's an independent nation, and as such it "sounds perfect for WikiLeaks: a friendly, legally unassailable host with an anything-goes attitude," writes Grimmelmann.

But as Grimmelmann notes, Sealand's history isn't exactly the "cryptographers' paradise" one might expect. In the early 2000s another company called HavenCo set up shop there with a "no-questions-asked colocation" facility. Dandy in theory, but not in practice. The endeavor was never remotely successful, and the company spiraled downward, eventually becoming "nationalized" by Sealand. "HavenCo no longer had real technical experts or the competitive advantage of being willing to host legally risky content," Grimmelmann writes. "What it did have was an absurdly inefficient cost structure. Every single piece of equipment, drop of fuel, and scrap of food had to be brought in by boat or helicopter. By 2006, 'Sealand' hosting was in a London data center. By 2008, even the HavenCo website was offline."

It's a fascinating story about the promises of data havens and the long-arm of the law. It's also a cautionary tale for Wikileaks, suggests Grimmelmann. "Sealand isn't going to save WikiLeaks any more than putting the site's servers in a former nuclear bunker would. The legal system figured out a long time ago that throwing the account owner in jail works just as well as seizing the server."

ThinkUp reboots

ThinkUp, one of the flagship products from the non-profit Expert Labs, will get a reboot as a for-profit company, write founders Gina Trapani and Anil Dash. The ThinkUp app is an open source tool that allows users to store, search and analyze all their social media activity (posts to Facebook, Twitter, Google+, etc.).

It's a simple tool, says Dash:

"But what ThinkUp represents is a lot of important concepts: Owning your actions and words on the web. Encouraging more positive and fruitful conversations on social networks. Gaining insights into ourselves and our friends based on what we say and share. And the possibility of discovering important information or different perspectives if we can return the web back to its natural state of not being beholden to any one company or proprietary network."

ThinkUp will remain open source but it will evolve to include an "easy-to-use product with mainstream appeal," says Trapani. Expert Labs will be winding down, but the new company that has grown out of it will share many parts of the organization's original mission.

Factual's Gil Elbaz profiled in The New York Times

With the headline "Just the Facts, Yes All of Them," The New York Times profiles Gil Elbaz, the founder of the data startup Factual. "The world is one big data problem," Elbaz tells journalist Quentin Hardy.

"Data has always been seen as just a side effect in computing, something you look up while you are doing work," Elbaz says in the Times piece. "We see it as a whole separate layer that everyone is going to have to tap into, data you want to solve a problem, but that you might not have yourself, and completely reliable."

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Principality of Sealand coat of arms via Wikimedia Commons.

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December 14 2011

Four short links: 14 December 2011

  1. The HipHop Virtual Machine (Facebook) -- inside the new virtual machine for PHP from Facebook.
  2. PHP Fog's Free Thinkup Hosting (Expert Labs) -- ThinkUp archives your tweets and other social media activity for you to search, visualize, and analyze. PHPFog hosts PHP apps scalably, and I'm delighted to be an advisor. Andy's made a video showing how to get up and running with ThinkUp in 3m. (This is impressive given how long I squinted at ThinkUp and swore trying to get it going on my colo box just a year ago)
  3. The Secret Lives of Links (Luke Wroblewski) -- notes on a talk by Jared Spool. On the Walgreen’s site, 21% of people go to photos, 16% go to search, 11% go to prescriptions, 6% go to pharmacy link, 5% go to find stores. Total traffic is 59% for these five links. The total amount of page used for these 5 links is ~4% of page space. The most important stuff on the page occupies less than 1/20th of the page. This violates Fitts's Law. Makes me think of the motor and sensory homunculi.
  4. VC Memes -- the success kid is my favourite, I think.

November 17 2011

Strata Week: Why ThinkUp matters

Here are a few of the data stories that caught my attention this week.

ThinkUp hits 1.0

ThinkUpThinkUp, a tool out of Expert Labs, enables users to archive, search and export their Twitter, Facebook and Google+ history — both posts and post replies. It also allows users to see their network activity, including new followers, and to map that information. Originally created by Gina Trapani, ThinkUp is free and open source, and will run on a user's own web server.

That's crucial, says Expert Labs' founder Anil Dash, who describes ThinkUp's launch as "software that matters." He writes that "ThinkUp's launch matters to me because of what it represents: The web we were promised we would have. The web that I fell in love with, and that has given me so much. A web that we can hack, and tweak, and own." Imagine everything you've ever written on Twitter, every status update on Facebook, every message on Google+ and every response you've had to those posts — imagine them wiped out by the companies that control those social networks.

Why would I ascribe such awful behavior to the nice people who run these social networks? Because history shows us that it happens. Over and over and over. The clips uploaded to Google Videos, the sites published to Geocities, the entire relationships that began and ended on Friendster: They're all gone. Some kind-hearted folks are trying to archive those things for the record, and that's wonderful. But what about the record for your life, a private version that's not for sharing with the world, but that preserves the information or ideas or moments that you care about?

It's in light of this, no doubt, that ReadWriteWeb's Jon Mitchell calls ThinkUp "the social media management tool that matters most." Indeed, as we pour more of our lives into these social sites, tools like ThinkUp, along with endeavors like the Locker Project, mark important efforts to help people own, control and utilize their own data.

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DataSift opens up its Twitter firehose

DataSiftDataSift, one of only two companies licensed by Twitter to syndicate its firehose (the other being Gnip), officially opened to the public this week. That means that those using DataSift can in turn mine all the social data that comes from Twitter — data that comes at a rate of some 250 million tweets per day. DataSift's customers can analyze this data for more than just keyword searches and can apply various filters, including demographic information, sentiment, gender, and even Klout score. The company also offers data from MySpace and plans to add Google+ and Facebook data soon.

DataSift, which was founded by Tweetmeme's Nick Halstead and raised $6 million earlier this year, is available as a pay-as-you-go subscription model.

Google's BigQuery service opens to more developers

Google announced this week that it was letting more companies have access to its piloting of BigQuery, its big data analytics service. The tool was initially developed for internal use at Google, and it was opened to a limited number of developers and companies at Google I/O earlier this year. Now, Google is allowing a few more companies into the fold (you can indicate your interest here), offering them the service for free — with the promise to notify them in 30 days if it plans to charge — as well as adding some user interface improvements.

In addition to a GUI for the web-based version, Google has improved the REST API for BigQuery as well. The new API offers granular control over permissions and lets you run multiple jobs in the background.

BigQuery is based on the Google tool formerly known as Dremel, which the company discussed in a research paper published last year:

[Dremel] is a scalable, interactive ad-hoc query system for analysis of read-only nested data. By combining multi-level execution trees and columnar data layout, it is capable of running aggregation queries over trillion-row tables in seconds. The system scales to thousands of CPUs and petabytes of data.

In the blog post announcing the changes to BigQuery, Google cites Michael J. Franklin, Professor of Computer Science at UC Berkeley, who calls BigQuery's ability to process big data "jaw-dropping."


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