» Archive for November, 2011

Siri’s Little Brother TrapIt Wants to Find Things For You

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2011 by Cody Burke

You have very pretty lights TrapIt, but can you find me good content?

Finding relevant content is tricky business; not only is there an abundance of irrelevant content to confuse us and muddy the waters, but we often simply don’t know something exists until we see it.  Traditional search fails us here because that method assumes we know what we are looking for in the first place, or that we possess the forethought to make some assumptions and pick out some key words to enter into the search bar.  Perhaps what we really need are intelligent tools that suggest things to us before we even know we are looking for them.

TrapIt, a new online content discovery tool, aims to meet that need.  TrapIt was developed by the same minds that created and then sold Siri to Apple (the Siri technology has now been fully integrated into the iPhone 4S).  Both offerings leverage artificial intelligence (AI) technology that was developed as part of the CALO (Cognitive Agent that Learns and Organizes) project, an AI project funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).   Originally intended for military use, the cognitive software was designed to learn from experience, take orders, explain its own actions, and respond to unexpected input.

The key difference between the two is that Siri is a virtual assistant that responds to your verbal commands to do tasks such as setting reminders or searching for information while TrapIt is designed to seek out the things that it has determined you will find relevant, without you having to ask for them.

TrapIt is currently in beta and delivers personalized content from over 100,000 sources based on “traps”, which are essentially search terms that the user sets up.  Once created, a trap will automatically refresh itself with new content to be read when the user logs in, building a personalized homepage that reflect the user’s interests.  Creating the trap “tablet usage” for instance creates a stream of content that relates to tablets and usage data.  The user is then prompted to give thumbs up or down to the content to indicate whether it is what he was looking for or  not.  When giving a thumbs down, there are options to indicate why, such as because it was not interesting, the source was not trusted, or the content was spam.  This helps to further refine the content that is suggested going forward.

The content that TrapIt collects is refined as TrapIt analyzes how often the user clicks on specific types of content, as well as through the thumbs up or down mechanism.    Because the AI learns as TrapIt is used, it is too early to tell from my tests how effective it will be at providing relevant content, but results so far are encouraging.

Siri, the first commercial application of the CALO AI, has been well received and is quickly becoming a popular feature of the iPhone (as well as being hacked to run on older iPhone models and platforms such as Android, or even to control thermostats).  Now that TrapIt is applying the same underlying technology to content discovery, we will have a chance to see how effective the AI really is, and if it can recommend content in a way that helps to cut through the clutter of information and get us the information we really need.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.  He can be reached at cburke@basex.com

Sleep and Knowledge Work

Tuesday, November 15th, 2011 by Cody Burke

Just one more text...

If you’re staying up late reading and/or writing e-mail, doing work, reading online forums and news, catching up on social networks – and then find yourself sleep-deprived the next day, you’re not alone.

Sleep deficiency is a major problem for knowledge workers who, due to increased mobility, are now more likely then ever to continue their work from home after leaving the office.  Even setting aside the pressure (some would even say the necessity) of answering e-mail messages or working on projects late into the night, the temptation of late-night recreational Internet and technology use is omnipresent.

Such behavior is considered poor sleep hygiene, a term that refers to one’s habits and practices at bedtime as well as environmental factors that may influence the length and quality of one’s sleep.

Consider the following statistics from the National Sleep Foundation’s 2011 “Sleep in America” poll:

- 39% of Americans bring their mobile phone into bed with them and end up using it in the hour before they go to sleep.  The number is even higher for younger Americans, 67% of 19-29 year olds.  21% of Americans end up texting during this time.

- Those individuals that end up texting in the hour before sleep are more likely to report bad sleep and not feeling refreshed.

- 1 in 10 Americans is woken up by mobile phone alerts from texts, calls, and e-mail.  The number rises to nearly 1 in 5 for 19-29 year olds.

- 36% of Americans use their laptop in bed before they go to sleep, and this group reports that it is less likely to get a good night’s sleep.

Why does this matter?  Surely we are able to deal with the loss of a little sleep in exchange for getting out that important e-mail or sending that last text of the day, right?

Unfortunately not, according to the UK-based Mental Health Foundation.  The organization’s 2011 “Sleep Matters” report notes that individuals who experience even mild sleep disorders are four times more likely to have relationship problems, three times more likely to lack concentration during their work day, three times more likely to struggle to accomplish tasks at work or during their day, and over twice as likely to suffer from energy deficiency.

Last week (in case you missed it due to being tired) was Drowsy Driving Prevention Week, a public awareness campaign by the National Sleep Foundation to highlight the issue of sleep safety.  To put the problem in perspective, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that drowsy driving results in 1,550 deaths, 71,000 injuries and more than 100,000 accidents each year.  The National Sleep Foundation estimates that drowsy driving is involved in about one in six deadly crashes and one in eight crashes resulting in hospitalization.

Presuming you are not nodding off while reading this, consider how lack of sleep might be impacting your productivity and effectiveness.  Before going to sleep, lay off e-mail and texting, and maybe even try just turning all of your devices completely off.

Sweet dreams.


Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.  He can be reached at cburke@basex.com


Fixing E-mail

Wednesday, November 9th, 2011 by Jonathan Spira

Is there a reply in there somewhere?

How many times do you send an e-mail message to someone and not get a reply?  Fairly often, I’d wager.

But how do you know and keep track of times when you don’t get a reply?

Sometimes I think back, oh, I sent an e-mail and so-and-so doesn’t seem to have replied.  When did I send it?  What was the subject?  Did I miss the reply?

When this happens, I first have to search for the e-mail that I had originally sent.  Sometimes that takes just a second, sometimes it takes a while.  Then I have to determine whether the question or issue is still important and, if so, what the next course of action might be.

I could send another e-mail but that could go unnoticed as well.  I don’t know if the recipient saw the first e-mail or even if it actually arrived (e-mail delivery is not infallible).

I can then resend it, forward it, or forward the e-mail to someone else who may be able to help me.  In some cases, it might make far more sense to switch communications channels altogether and make a phone call or send an instant message (especially internally).

Of course, this is all predicated on my being able to recall that a.) I had sent the e-mail and b.) that no reply had been forthcoming.  Much e-mail goes unreplied to and some of it is actually important.

In the meantime, some important issues go overlooked and much time is wasted.  I probably become aware of at least one unanswered e-mail each day and figuring out what the status of that message is, as well what actions are required can take anywhere from five to 15 minutes.  If every knowledge worker in the U.S. dealt with this issue on a daily basis, we would find we lose 12.576  million hours on a given day, at a cost of $264 million (this is based on 78.6 million knowledge workers and 10 minutes or 16% of one hour lost).

Of course, what could be even more costly are the ramifications of an e-mail message which has perhaps not been acted upon or read or replied to.  It’s impossible to calculate these costs but, in some cases, they can be significant, resulting in a loss of business, missed opportunity, or simply confusion and frustration for the knowledge worker who does not know if the e-mail was ever received and acted upon.

While there are several third-party Microsoft Outlook plug-ins and tools that address this issue, what we really need is an option in the out-of-the-box e-mail client (IBM, Microsoft are you listening?) that allows me to set a time period for receiving replies to flagged e-mail so that, when no reply is forthcoming within this timeframe, the e-mail client alerts me.  Sounds like an easy fix to me.

UPDATE – Since this Commentary was published on Tuesday, a reader pointed out that he uses the follow-up feature in Microsoft Outlook (there is a similar feature in Lotus Notes, which is what I use). The problem is that this requires the sender of the e-mail to set up the follow-up flag when sending (although it can also be set at a later point in time), and the feature serves only as a reminder for further action since it does not know whether the recipient has or has not replied to the e-mail.


Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex and author of Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization.

Information Overload, Basex:TechWatch, and Mission Creep

Thursday, November 3rd, 2011 by Jonathan Spira

Since Basex:TechWatch was founded in 1997, its mission has been to present a weekly digest of news and information on topics and offerings relating to knowledge sharing and collaboration.

Over the past 14 years, the amount of stuff (the only word that really describes it) that could conceivably fall into these categories has expanded exponentially.  As a result, Basex:TechWatch became somewhat bloated and almost doubled in size.

Given our increased focus on the problem of Information Overload in recent years, we have decided to put Basex:TechWatch on a diet of sorts.  We will do this by sharpening our focus around knowledge sharing and collaboration with an eye towards tools that could help knowledge workers deal in a better manner with the burden of too much information.

An example of this is the dramatic increase in the number of mobile devices such as smartphones that seem to come onto the market each week.  Since the difference between many of these devices is minimal, we have reduced our coverage accordingly and will only include those which we feel are innovative and relevant to the topic at hand.

This won’t happen overnight but we do think you’ll find the new, slimmed-down Basex:TechWatch to be more on topic and even more useful in providing you with a quick overview of new products, offerings, services, and updates that have been announced in the preceding week.

We’ll continue to work to fine tune Basex:TechWatch, and if you have any suggestions, please feel free to e-mail us at btwsuggest@basex.com.

Click here if you would like to sign up for a free subscription to  Basex:TechWatch.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex and author of Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization.