Friday, June 22, 2012

The Perfect Chunk, the Twitter Pulse, and Why I Feel Depressed

When Twitter came along I thought I died and had gone to heaven, linguistically speaking.  As a practicing poet who had endured countless hours of graduate school misery to compress what I was writing into poetic bits that could be approved by the higher ups, I had finally found my calling. Even better, the process was institutionalized on a global basis.  The world would be my oyster.  Here was this Twitter thing, sounding very much like the song birds outside my window, through which I could upload 140 characters in poetic chunks.  For a moment I felt very modern, writing poetry in chunks of metadata that were searchable and, even better, would last forever.  I’ve read that chunky content in this weird tablet world is the next big thing and, no, it has nothing to do with the soup.

I am deeply saddened and embarrassed when I get the occasional lament from my friends at Twitter saying: “We have missed you at Twitter.” Well, truth be told, I have missed you as well and tried my best.  Didn’t I begin my tweets, appropriately, with short takes on the Northern Cardinal, the Downy Woodpecker, and the Red-Bellied Woodpecker?  Not a Common Tern among them!  I upped the ante and tweeted about the Red-tailed Hawk who savaged our local squirrel population.  Then I provided some night music with tweets about the Barred Owl who waits patiently for the mice to appear, offering no more than a lullaby of ooh, ooh, oohs to put us to sleep.

I guess Twitter has not made a lot of money monetizing my data.  But now that I have digested a fascinating research piece from UCLA and HP Labs, I am ready to have another go.  The paper by Roja Bandari and company, entitled “The Pulse of News in Social Media: Forecasting Popularity,” argues that despite randomness in human behavior, “it is possible to predict ranges of popularity on Twitter with an overall 84% accuracy.”

The focus for this study is news articles that by definition usually have a short lifespan.  Therefore, the task is quite daunting.  The researchers’ goal was “to discover if any predictors relevant only to the content exist and if it is possible to make a reasonable forecast of the spread of an article based on content features.”  The study collected data from Feedzilla, a news feed aggregator and developed an algorithm.  Popularity for a news article on Twitter was measured as the number of times a URL is posted.  They considered four article characteristics: the news source that generates and posts the article; the category of news; the subjectivity of the language in the article; and named entities mentioned in the article.  The researchers collected 40,000 feeds during a nine-day period in August 2011.  They refer to the average tweets per link or article as the t-density score.  Their analysis showed that technology, health, and fun stuff ranked the highest in t-density.

Perhaps even more interesting is the HP Lab team finds that the “top news sources on Twitter are not necessarily the conventionally popular news agencies and various technology blogs such as Mashable and the Google blog are widely shared in social media.”  But brands still matter.  Researchers found that one of the most important predictors of popularity was the source of the article.

We know from Twitter evangelists Jimmy Lin and Gilad Mishne that its users create approximately a quarter billion tweets and more than two billion search queries a day.  The two evangelists studied churn in tweets and real time search queries.  Churn is simply a measure of changes in term rank over time.  The researcher found that there is more churn in tweets than in search queries and that must be good for the business.

The folks at wrote the headline: “Twitter Slowly Unfolding Its Search Ambitions.”  This would include the recently unveiled expandable tweets and hashtag-based pages.  Having learned from Google about text search, Twitter’s ambitions will include more images and video.

The other day the NYT had an article on how depressives surf the Web.  Not surprisingly, they are compulsive, switching frequently among multiple application, from games, to chat rooms to file downloads.  Of course, they also show anxiety about email.  Perhaps they have a Mother Complex.  At any rate, this is called Flow Duration Therapy.  What good is a disease without a name?

Our friends at the Missouri University of Science and Technology gave us this study. One possible solution proposed is the creation of a software program that would tell us when our Internet usage is showing a pattern that might signal symptoms of a depression.  A perfect solution!

Psychologists refer to the “availability bias” to explain why people make certain decisions.  Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, Professors at Stanford University and the University of British Columbia, respectively, use this phrase to explain why people don’t always make rational choices.  Others have used this theory to explain why so many people jumped on the Facebook IPO.  It wasn’t necessarily because of the financial proposition.  As Rebecca Waber notes in her recent Harvard Business Review Blog, the critically important factor for many investors likely was "Facebook’s ubiquity and its starring role in so many people’s lives.”  Because so many of us use Facebook every day, the company likely loomed larger in the mind of investors than its balance sheet warranted.  This is the “availability bias.”

The “availability bias” might have implications for how we engage, consume, and invest in social media.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Pagers, Silver Water and the Future of Mobile Health

Small advances please me greatly. I learned on NPR this morning that NYU’s Langhorne Medical Center is phasing out the iconic pager that has been tied to doctor’s waists for almost sixty years to be replaced by the smartphone. Privacy concerns and cost slowed down this transition. Lethargy might have played a part.  I’ve had two successful operations at Langhorne and know doctors there who think pagers remain the perfectly appropriate technology not likely to end up inside a patient.

But it was time. When a technology becomes a butt of jokes and parody, such as in 30 Rock with its pager salesman and in the sci-fi series Dark Angel, it’s time to retire the beast. Presumably the Langhorne Medical Center has figured out how to improve frequent weak cell phone coverage inside the hospital corridors.

I think the health and fitness fields offer tremendous opportunities for advanced mobile technologies. But, as we know, every development has a shadow side and for the medical field the shadow is in the testing.  Recently I went to a new doctor for my annual physical. In addition to the blood work and the like, he ordered a stress test and an EKG for me, though I had given him a detailed history of my running, cycling, and endurance training.  I told him my history with Bicycling Magazine, Runner’s World, Scuba Diving, Men’s Health and Prevention to emphasize that I had been monitoring my health and the field for thirty years. I had no family history of heart disease and no symptoms.

As luck would have it, my May 2012 issue of the AARP Bulletin arrived with an article entitled, “7 Medical Procedures You Don’t Need.”  Leading the list were EKGs and stress tests for people without symptoms. The other six include (with some editing): bone scans for men under 65; antibiotics for mild/moderate sinus infections; Advil and Motrin for those with high blood pressure or kidney disease; CT scans for uncomplicated headaches; dubious diagnostic tests for suspected allergies; and CT scan, X-Ray, and MRI for lower back pain.  This data comes from a study by the American Board of Internal Medicine and forms the basis of their Choosing Wisely Campaign. Full details can be found at

I assume good will on the part of most physicians and understand they are protecting themselves from malpractice. But I had a hard time swallowing advice from a New York physician who suggested I flush my sinus cavities with silver water. And the advice from a New York allergist, well-known to television audiences in the area, who pressed me to take monthly immunoglobulin  shots for allergies even when tests showed I had no antibody deficiencies. I finally found a physician who provided a low-cost, low-tech cure.

Few media companies of consequence don’t have a doctor on board to parse the unrelenting barrage of medical advice we receive from an array of journals, universities and trade associations. Consumers need help. The recent suggestion that men should not routinely be given the PSA test for prostate cancer has caused confusion and alarm.   

There appears to be an app for every pain and body part.  PriceWaterhouseCoopers estimates that there are more than 10,000 medical, fitness and health-related apps available for download. Jokes about pager use aside, we know that 95% of doctors with smart phones are using apps to assist in their work. Given the growing shortage of primary care physicians, it seems that the healthcare industry will inevitably make better use of mobile phone technology.  In India, a pilot project involving 50,000 consumers who get medical checkups over mobile devices shows promise.
The medical field does not lack information; we are inundated. What the field lacks is integration and particularly wireless integration. 
Qualcomm Life, a wholly owned subsidiary of Qualcomm Inc., is offering some tantalizing possibilities. (Full disclosure: I have consulted for Qualcomm QMT in the past).

Qualcomm Life is building a vast wireless ecosystem—in effect a platform that will include devices and apps, gateways, cloud-based connectivity, and access for patients, healthcare professionals, and payors. The platform is designed to meet HIPAA requirements and data security standards developed by the payment card industry.

Given Qualcomm’s knowledge of device manufacturers, carriers, and network development, the company will have something to say about the future of mobile health with the consumer as much a partner as patient.