diginomica 2016 - Jessica’s choice

Profile picture for user jtwentyman By Jessica Twentyman December 26, 2016
Jessica closes the door on a sub-par 2016 with a cheery focus on her favorite feel-good and uplifting stories of the year.

Ugh. What a year, right? I don’t know about you, but I’ve got a terrible cramp from bracing myself for the next nightmare that 2016 will serve up.

Still, I try to live by the following mantra: “You can’t polish a t*rd, but you can roll it in glitter.”

So, in the spirit of remaining irritatingly upbeat and chipper - I find it really confuses The Enemy - I’ve decided to focus on the feel-good and uplifting articles I wrote this year for diginomica. These the stories that give me the most hope for humanity - or at the very least allowed me to raise a wan, but plucky, smile. I hope they do the same for you.

(1) Artfinder paints personalization picture using graph database

Our competitors in the art world are still claiming to be able to hold up ‘the next big thing’ or ‘investable art’ as if they are the gatekeepers of good taste. The world just doesn’t work like that any more. Personalized recommendations mean you see art you want to see, just like you listen to the music you want to listen to. That’s how it should be.

Why? I had a great meeting earlier this year in London’s Bloomsbury district with the founders of online art marketplace Artfinder. I love the Artfinder business model, which aims to help artists actually make a viable living from their art, and I admire the company’s commitment to using big data to tailor recommendations that get art fans clicking the ‘Buy’ button. At our meeting, Artfinder COO Michal Szczesny gave me a terrific rundown of why he put a graph database from Neo4J at the heart of this personalization effort.

(2) Bloodwise takes temperature of public reaction to name change

Analysing celebrity supporters is one example of this: I’ve been looking at how many of our conversations are driven by key celebrity supporters, the nature of those conversations and how celebrities’ audiences respond to what they say about us online.

Why? Social media networks give us plenty of reason to gripe - or at least, the uses that some people find for them do. But for charities, social media can be a cheap and effective way to promote causes, showcase campaigns and stay in touch with volunteers and supporters. In the case of Bloodwise, formerly known as Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research, its 2016 name-change was broadcast via Twitter to 13 million users of the service. I spoke to Owen Bowden, insights and analysis manager at the charity, to understand how he’s used tools from Crimson Hexagon to measure the renaming campaign’s impact and dig down into the conversations that people have online about blood cancers. 

(3) Waterstones authors new DevOps playbook with New Relic monitoring tools

We’re all booksellers at heart here, and having the right tools in place means we can all focus on what we do best – and that’s finding the best ways to sell as many books as possible.

Why? Bookshops are brilliant. Wandering around, browsing the shelves and making unexpected discoveries is a pleasure you just doesn’t get from placing an order online. So it was good to see signs that the Waterstones story may have a happy ending after all: the British bookstore chain is working hard to finesse its approach to multichannel retail. I spoke to Oliver White, head of web development at Waterstones about the frequent, incremental changes to software that underpin multichannel processes, such as checking a local store’s inventory online and of course ‘click-and-collect’ - and how he’s using monitoring tools from New Relic to keep an eye on the impact those updates have on system performance. 

(4) War Child UK breaks down communication boundaries with prize internet

We already had an intranet but it was [...] just a place where forms went to die, a graveyard for documents. I had recently joined the organization and was trying to find a way to improve our internal communications, so entering the competition seemed like a perfect opportunity. We were absolutely thrilled to win.

Why? War Child UK is a brilliant charity, working to help kids trapped in or fleeing conflict situations. Its employees and volunteers work in far-flung and often dangerous locations, but are able to stay in touch, share experiences and offer each other advice thanks to the generosity of software company Interact. In 2015, Interact named War Child UK the winner of its annual non-profit competition, the prize being the implementation of a £40,000 new intranet, including consultancy, training and project management services. I spoke to Dave O’Carroll, head of digital at War Child UK, about the work involved in getting the intranet up and running. As he told me:

(5) British Gas turns up the heat on its Women in Technology network

I believe we can make a difference here. We have a story to tell and we’re going to be telling it a lot more.

Why? Workplace diversity is a big topic for Diginomica, as it should be. This year, utilities company British Gas commissioned a survey that found that more than half (55%) of female respondents would be encouraged to choose technology as a career if there were more mentoring schemes were available and they had access to support networks in the workplace. With the survey announced to coincide with the launch of British Gas’s own Women in Technology network, I spoke to Kathleen Mock, the technologist spearheading that initiative, about her goals for the initiative. 

(6) Capital One hires UK design star to lead disruption charge

I’ve been surprised in a good way at how much support I’m given to do the sort of work I need to do. And I’ve been struck by how big the opportunity is for design here at Capital One. There’s so much difference we can make in our customers’ lives.

Why? On my personal list of ‘cool jobs to have in tech’, UX [user experience] designer is right up there, along with data scientist and ethical hacker. Of course, I’m not vaguely qualified to do any of these jobs, but I love the chance to speak to people who are. So I was really pleased to interview Aline Baeck, a Silicon Valley native with a 20-year track record in UX design and the recently appointed head of design at Capital One UK. She told me about laying out her roadmap and working hard to recruit other talented minds to her team.

(7) Team Rubicon UK gets a helping hack from developers to boost disaster relief work

Technology can go a long way into making sure that volunteers have a positive experience of working in even the toughest situations. It’s what will allow them to focus on doing a great job and absolutely minimize the number of admin steps they need to go through.

Why? Former military personnel seem to get a pretty raw deal when they leave active service: at best, their skills may go unappreciated by employers; at worst, they may struggle to access even basic help to make the transition to civilian life. At Team Rubicon UK, former Royal Marines commando John Leach is targeting their talents into the delivery of disaster relief work - and this year, developers attending Docusign’s London conference participated in a hackathon which saw them come up with ideas for new apps to boost that work. The winning solution will be put into production, along with other ideas generated by hackathon participants, Leach told me.

(8) Cloud HR powers race for athletic prosthetics champions

It’s been quite an interesting time for us as we move into [prosthetic] hands and arms and continue to expand. We’ve been moving into unfamiliar markets, where we need to get acquainted with the skills and talents there.

Why? I have very little interest in sport and watched precisely zero hours of coverage from Rio 2016, but I was fascinated by the idea behind the world’s first  Cybathlon’, a showcase of the very latest in assistive technologies, held in Zurich this October. Quite a few of the athletes competing, it seems, were wearing robotic prosthetics from Icelandic manufacturer Ossur Technologies - so it was interesting to hear about the company’s Workday-based approach to recruiting and retaining the talent it needs, from IT business domain manager for IT systems, Gudrun Margret Hannesdottir.

(9) Ocado turns to AI to tackle customer email overload

There’s clearly a difference, in terms of priority, between the email that says, ‘My order was perfect – thank you’ and the one that says, ‘My order is an hour late and it’s my son’s birthday party is this afternoon.’

Why? I’ll take any chance I get to speak to technology people from Ocado - the company’s always got something interesting going on behind the scenes. So it’s no surprise that this rule applies to artificial intelligence (AI), too - possibly 2016’s most over-hyped and poorly understood technologies. As usual, Ocado’s taking a practical, hands-on approach that focuses on early wins in proven use cases; in this case, to sort through customer emails, identifying whether they contain complaints or praise, as well as how quickly the company needs to act on identified issues.

(10) Dreamforce 16 - Being Benioff - Walking with the CEO

Are the monks over there? Let’s go see some monks!

Why? Of all the stories that my Diginomica colleagues wrote this year, I think this is the one that made me smile the most. It’s an account by Stuart Lauchlan of a tour of the Dreamforce campus in downtown San Francisco, in the company of Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff. For me, it conjures up all the hectic craziness of that event. It features Sister Emptiness and Quip Rangers, street closures and rock bands, mindfulness and monks - and the vague promise of a climbing wall for Dreamforce 2017.