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Making better decisions with big data personas

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Making better decisions with big data personas


A persona is an imaginary figure representing a segment of real people, and it is a communicative design technique aimed at enhanced user understanding. Through several decades of use, personas were data structures, static frameworks user attributes with no interactivity. A persona was a means to organize data about the imaginary person and to present information to the decision-makers. This wasn’t really actionable for most situations.

How personas and data work together

With increasing analytics data, personas can now be generated using big data and algorithmic approaches. This integration of personas and analytics offers impactful opportunities to shift personas from flat files of data presentation to interactive interfaces for analytics systems. These personas analytics systems provide both the empathic connection of personas and the rational insights of analytics. With persona analytics systems, the persona is no longer a static, flat file. Instead, they are operational modes of accessing user data. Combining personas and analytics also makes the user data less challenging to employ for those lacking the skills or desire to work with complex analytics. Another advantage of persona analytics systems is that one can create hundreds of data-driven personas to reflect the various behavioral and demographic nuances in the underlying user population.

A “personas as interfaces” approach offers the benefits of both personas and analytics systems and addresses each’s shortcomings. Transforming both the persona and analytics creation process, personas as interfaces provide both theoretical and practical implications for design, marketing, advertising, health care, and human resources, among other domains.

This persona as interface approach is the foundation of the persona analytics system, Automatic Persona Generation (APG). In pushing advancements of both persona and analytics conceptualization, development, and use, APG presents a multi-layered full-stack integration affording three levels of user data presentation, which are (a) the conceptual persona, (b) the analytical metrics, and (c) the foundational data.

APG generates casts of personas representing the user population, with each segment having a persona. Relying on regular data collection intervals, data-driven personas enrich the traditional persona with additional elements, such as user loyalty, sentiment analysis, and topics of interest, which are features requested by APG customers.

Leveraging intelligence system design concepts, APG identifies unique behavioral patterns of user interactions with products (i.e., these can be products, services, content, interface features, etc.) and then associates these unique patterns to demographic groups based on the strength of association to the unique pattern. After obtaining a grouped interaction matrix, we apply matrix factorization or other algorithms for identifying latent user interaction. Matrix factorization and related algorithms are particularly suited for reducing the dimensionality of large datasets by discerning latent factors.

How APG data-driven personas work

APG enriches the user segments produced by algorithms via adding an appropriate name, picture, social media comments, and related demographic attributes (e.g., marital status, educational level, occupation, etc.) via querying the audience profiles of prominent social media platforms. APG has an internal meta-tagged database of thousand of purchased copyright photos that are age, gender, and ethnically appropriate. The system also has an internal database of hundreds of thousands of names that are also age, gender, and ethnically appropriate. For example, for a persona of an Indian female in her twenties, APG automatically selects a popular name for females twenty years ago in India. The APG data-driven personas are then displayed to the users from the organization via the interactive online system.

APG employs the foundational user data that the system algorithms act upon, transforming this data into information about users. This algorithmic processing outcome is actionable metrics and measures about the user population (i.e., percentages, probabilities, weights, etc.) of the type that one would typically see in industry-standard analytics packages. Employing these actionable metrics is the next level of abstraction taken by APG. The result is a persona analytics system capable of presenting user insights at different granularity levels, with levels both integrated and appropriate to the task.

For example, C-level executives may want a high-level view of the users for which personas would be applicable. Operational managers may want a probabilistic view for which the analytics would appropriate. The implementers need to take direct user action, such as for a marketing campaign, for which the individual user data is more suitable.

Each level of the APG can be broken down as follows:

Conceptual level, personas. The highest level of abstraction, the conceptual level, is the set of personas that APG generates from the data using the method described above, with a default of ten personas. However, APG theoretically can generate as many personas as needed. The persona has nearly all the typical attributes that one finds in traditional flat-file persona profiles. However, in APG, personas as interfaces allow for dramatically increased interactivity in leveraging personas within organizations. Interactivity is provided such that the decision-maker can alter the default number to generate more or fewer personas, with the system currently set for between five and 15 personas. The system can allow for searching a set of personas or leveraging analytics to predict persona interests.

Analytics level: percentages, probabilities, and weights. At the analytics level, APG personas act as interfaces to the underlying information and data used to create the personas. The specific information may vary somewhat by the data source. Still, the analytics level will reflect the metrics and measures generated from the foundational user data and create the personas. In APG, the personas provide affordance to the various analytics information via clickable icons on the persona interface. For example, APG displays the percentage of the entire user population that a particular persona is representing. This analytic insight is valuable for decision-makers to determine the importance of designing or developing for a specific persona and helps address the issue of the persona’s validity in representing actual users.

User level: individual data. Leveraging the demographic metadata from the underlying factorization algorithm, decision-makers can access the specific user level (i.e., individual or aggregate) directly within APG. The numerical user data (in various forms) are the foundation of the personas and analytics.

The implications of data-driven personas

The conceptual shift of personas from flat files to personas as interfaces for enhanced user understanding opens new possibilities for interaction among decision-makers, personas, and analytics. Using data-driven personas embedded as the interfaces to analytics systems, decision-makers can, for example, imbue analysis systems with the benefit of personas to form a psychological bond, via empathy, between stakeholders and user data and still have access to the practical user numbers. There are several practical implications for managers and practitioners. Namely, personas are now actionable, as the personas accurately reflect the underlying user data. This full-stack implementation aspect has not been available with either personas or analytics previously.

APG is a fully functional system deployed with real client organizations. Please visit https://persona.qcri.org to see a demo.

This content was written by Qatar Computing Research Institute, Hamad Bin Khalifa University, a member of Qatar Foundation. It was not written by MIT Technology Review’s editorial staff.

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The US has pledged to halve its carbon emissions by 2030

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The US has pledged to halve its carbon emissions by 2030


Is Biden’s pledge feasible? For now, there’s no specific road map to reaching this new target, but the White House is expected to release sector-by-sector recommendations later this year. To meet it, the US will have to radically overhaul its economy and drastically cut the use of oil, gas, and coal. Specifically, President Biden will need to push through a set of ambitious policies to spend $2.3 trillion to tackle emissions in high-polluting areas, such as cars and power plants, and accelerate innovation in clean energy and climate technology. 

The reactions: Nat Keohane, head of the Environmental Defense Fund, an influential US NGO, tweeted that the new US target “meets the moment and the urgency that the climate crisis demands. It aligns with the science, pushes global ambition & accelerates the shift to a stronger, clean economy.” 

“After years of US federal inaction to address its role in the climate crisis, today the Biden administration has presented all of us with significant reason for hope,” says Rachel Cleetus, policy director and lead economist in the Climate and Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.



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How a tiny media company is helping people get vaccinated

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How a tiny media company is helping people get vaccinated


More than 132 million people in the US have received at least one dose of a covid-19 vaccine, and as of this week, all Americans over 16 are eligible.

But while the US has vaccinated more people than any other country in the world, vulnerable people are still falling through the cracks. Those most affected include people who don’t speak English, people who aren’t internet-savvy, and shift workers who don’t have the time or computer access to book their own slots. In many places, community leaders, volunteers, and even news outlets have stepped in to help.

One of those groups is Epicenter-NYC, a media company that was founded during the pandemic to help neighbors navigate covid-19. Based in the Queens neighborhood of Jackson Heights, which was particularly hard hit by the virus, the organization publishes a newsletter on education, business, and other local news. 

S. Mitra Kalita, publisher of Epicenter-NYC

But Epicenter-NYC has gone further and actually booked more than 4,600 vaccine appointments for people in New York and beyond. People who want to get vaccinated can contact the organization—either through an intake form, a hotline, a text, or an email—for help setting up an appointment.

Throughout the vaccine rollout, the group has also been documenting and sharing what it has learned about the process with a large audience of newsletter readers. 

We spoke with S. Mitra Kalita, the publisher of Epicenter-NYC, who was previously a senior vice president at CNN Digital and is also the cofounder and CEO of URL Media, a network for news outlets covering communities of color. 

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Q: How did you start setting people up with vaccine appointments? 

A: It began with two areas of outreach. First, when I had to register my own parents for a vaccine and found the process to be pretty confusing, I immediately wondered how well elderly residents, their friends and neighbors, manage this process. I just started messaging them.

The second was when a restaurant [from our small business spotlight program] reached out and said, “Do you guys know how to get vaccines for our restaurant workers?” Because I had been navigating some of this for the elderly, I started to help the restaurant workers. There started to be a similar network effect. One of the workers at this restaurant has a boyfriend who is a taxi driver; when I helped her, she asked if I could help her boyfriend; then the boyfriend texted me with some of his friends; and it kept spreading in that way. 

Q: How is Epicenter-NYC filling gaps in vaccine distribution right now? What is your process like, and who are you helping?

“There’s a lot of matchmaking going on. We can sort through a list of about 7,500 to 8,000 people who said they need help, and then find places in proximity.”

S. Mitra Kalita

A: We’ve had between 200 and 250 people reach out to volunteer. The outreach efforts range from putting up fliers, doing translations, and calling people to literally booking the appointments. 

I don’t care if you’re a Bangladeshi taxi driver in Queens and your cousin is in New Jersey. We’re going to help both of you. A woman on the Upper East Side who’s 102 years old who is homebound and needs a visit is absolutely going to get Epicenter’s help. 

What we’re doing now is continuing the route of connecting people to each other and opportunities. There’s a lot of matchmaking going on. We can sort through a list of about 7,500 to 8,000 people who said they need help, and then find places in proximity. We’ve become this wonderful marriage—a centralized operation that also embraces decentralized solutions.

Q: We know that vaccination rates lag in many communities that were hit the hardest. Why is that? What issues and barriers are people experiencing? 

A: Just before the latest Johnson & Johnson pause announcement, I said, “We’re at a point where everybody remaining is a special case.”

I think we’ve leapfrogged to vaccine hesitancy without solving for vaccine access. We don’t see a lot of hesitancy, but we do see a lot of concerns over some issues. Number one would be scheduling. We’re dealing with populations that are working two, maybe three jobs, and when they say “I have this window on Sunday at 3 p.m. until maybe 6 p.m., when my next shift starts,” they really mean that’s the only window.

Q: People have been asked to prove who they are, where they work, and where they live in order to qualify for a vaccine. This was especially true when eligibility was more limited. How did you help people face barriers around getting the documents they needed? 

A: New York State has been explicit in saying you can still get a vaccine even if you are undocumented. But that messaging doesn’t really match the on-the-ground reality. 

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Police in Ogden, Utah and small cities around the US are using these surveillance technologies

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Police in Ogden, Utah and small cities around the US are using these surveillance technologies


One afternoon, I accompanied Heather West, the detective who’d been perusing gray pickups in the license-plate database, and Josh Terry, the analyst who’d spotted the kidnapper with the Cowboys jacket, to fly a drone over a park abutting a city-owned golf course on the edge of town. West was at the controls; Terry followed the drone’s path in the sky and maintained “situational awareness” for the crew; another detective focused on the iPad showing what the drone was seeing, as opposed to where and how it was flying. 

Of all the gadgets under the hood at the real time crime center, drones may well be the most tightly regulated, subject to safety (but not privacy) regulations and review by the Federal Aviation Administration. In Ogden, neighbor to a large Air Force base, these rules are compounded by flight restrictions covering most of the city. The police department had to obtain waivers to get its drones off the ground; it took two years to develop policies and get the necessary approvals to start making flights. 

Joshua Terry, an analyst who does much of the real time crime center’s mapping work, with a drone.

NIKI CHAN WYLIE

The police department purchased its drones with a mind to managing large public events or complex incidents like hostage situations. But, as Dave Weloth soon found, “the more we use our drones, the more use cases we find.” At the real time crime center, Terry, who has a master’s in geographic information technology, had given me a tour of the city with images gathered on recent drone flights, clicking through to cloud-shaped splotches, assembled from the drone’s composite photographs, that dotted the map of Ogden. 

Above 21st Street and Washington, he zoomed in on the site of a fatal crash caused by a motorcycle running a red light. A bloody sheet covered the driver’s body, legs splayed on the pavement, surrounded by a ring of fire trucks. Within minutes, the drone’s cameras had scanned the scene and created a 3D model accurate to a centimeter, replacing the complex choreography of place markers and fixed cameras on the ground that sometimes leave major intersections closed for hours after a deadly collision.

No one seemed to give much thought to the fact that quietly, people who were homeless had become the sight most frequently captured by the police department’s drone program.

When the region was hit by a powerful windstorm last September, Terry flew a drone over massive piles of downed trees and brush collected by the city. When county officials saw the resulting volumetric analysis—12,938 cubic yards—that would be submitted as part of a claim to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, they asked the police department to perform the same service for two neighboring towns. Ogden drones have also been used to pinpoint hot spots after wildland fires, locate missing persons, and fly “overwatch” for SWAT team raids.

This flight was more routine. When I pulled into the parking lot, two officers from Ogden’s community policing unit looked on as West steered the craft over a dense stand of Gambel oak and then hovered over a triangular log fort on a hillside a couple of hundred yards away. Though they’d never encountered people on drone sweeps through the area, trash and makeshift structures were commonplace. Once the RTCC pinpointed the location of any encampments, the community service officers would go in on foot to get a closer look. “We get a lot of positive feedback from runners, hikers,” one officer explained. After one recent visit to a camp near a pond on 21st Street, he and the county social service workers who accompanied him found housing for two people they’d met there. When clearing camps, police also “try and connect [people] with services they need,” Weloth said. The department recently hired a full-time homeless outreach coordinator to help. “We can’t police ourselves out of this problem,” he said, comparing the department’s efforts to keep new camps from springing up to “pushing water uphill.”

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