Home > Events > Thinking Digital 2011 – the blog post

Thinking Digital 2011 – the blog post

Thinking Digital Conference is a wonderful mix of innovation, technology and great thinkers. The 2011 edition of the conference even caught the attention of The Guardian that wrote several articles about it. In this post I want to share some of the impressions that stuck with me after joining the conference and spending a little more than two days in the beautiful Newcastle Gateshead in the UK.

Day 1


The Future of Media

Gerd Leonhard was the first speaker on the first day and he started by discussing how fast information flows. Breaking news can be found on twitter long before it is found on other more traditional media. From time to time it even gets out a little too fast. The number of connected devices is expected to grow to around 50 billion around the year 2020. There is also a sharp increase in the amount of data that is produced, a trend seems to go on year by year. Considering these things the future will not be a fight for distribution, but rather a fight for attention. These forces will bring about changes in many ways, such as in the quality of ads. They will need to become better, so good that the ads themselves are percieved as high quality content. Another way to survive in the future is to think differently about who should pay for what. TDC broadband was presented as a very successful example of changing who pays. They developed TDC PLAY and offered free music to their customers. This contributed to an unprecedented 50% reduction in churn for TDC broadband customers.

About 30 seconds after Walter de Brouwer stepped on-stage I kew he was a true health geek. According to him the do it yourself healthcare movement is unstoppable. The public healthcare system is bypassed over and over again, simply because health is worth investing in. He observed that medical records consist of punctuated data with huge voids in between since we tend to measure health only when people are sick or dying. A number of cool devices exist to capture more information, and some people capture a lot of information (a health focused version of life caching). Using this information we are able to learn about what things that affect our health and act accordingly. Taking a pill is easier but what we really need is to change our behavior, so maybe the doctors of the future will prescribe apps instead of pills.

Walter continued by pointing out some important things for the health information industry. Health and privacy does not go hand in hand since private data cannot be used in research or other ways of learning. To improve knowledge of health he suggests we should share health-related information. Not only anonymously, but perhaps openly between friends. That way we could find answers to why some of our friends are feeling so good. Do they sleep more, exercise better or eat less? Another important aspect is that all this health related information must be simplified and presented in a way that is easy to understand. In Walters words “Health will become a number”. Also, gathering all this information must become easier. This could be achieved by incorporating sensors in everyday objects such as toothbrushes and clothes. His future vision for health is something similar to OnStar for humans. Constant monitoring in combination with convenient suggestions for measures should be able to improve health for any of us.

Thinking Digital

Bobby Paterson did a good job presenting Happiest – a social motivation network that facilitates happiness by focusing on 7 healthy habits: Gratitude, Eat healthy, Wisdom, Get active, Meditation, Mantras and keeping a happiness Journal. According to Herb Kim they’re kind of like TripAdvisor for happiness. In his talk Bobby referred to Chip Conleys TED talk Measuring what makes life worthwhile where he talks about GDP versus GNH . If we can find out what makes us happy that information can be useful to ourselves as well as others. He also thinks that businesses can evolve themselves a lot if they are mindful of their happiness footprint.

Erin McKean is an american lexicographer meaning that she is very much into words. Her word of the day was skeuomorph and she set that in context by discussing how design features that were important in the physical world sometimes are pointless or even counter-effective in the digital world. The wordnik site that is ”a place for all words” had to find new solutions to the fact that dicitionaries took a long time to develop. The main problem was that there were too few lexicographers. Their solution to the problem came about when they took a look at how people understand words. A definition doesn’t help us as much as a good example and understanding how a word relates to other words does. So, at wordnik anybody can help build the dictionary by providing such things. To make this possible they had to develop data storages that could hold a lot of relations between words. This has become a huge wordograph with a humongous number of words and connections between words. After a while they realized that this meant that wordnik had become something else than what they set out to create – a meaning discovery engine. It can answer a variety of text based questions. Today they look into commercializing this so that companies can answer questions that their clients have using information from their own websites.

Conrad Wolfram talked about how we can deal with information overload and where computation meets knowledge. Conrad stresses that we do not need search, but instead a good way to provide answers. In his own words computational knowledge is worth much more than dead information. He also feels that this should be the case in the public sector, research & development and the corporate world. He provided samples like financial reporting, natural disasters and even natural language searches where the user can modify guesses and preferences and immediately see the effects of those changes. To get to this new level of knowledge we need access to the right tools and better education. He feels that the math education should focus less on calculus and more on the application of math. In 2010 he delivered an excellent TED talk on that very topic.

Mind over matter

A mobile manspace

A mobile manspace

Sam Martin delivered an entertaining talk about Manspaces. It quickly lead to an intense twitterburst and a comment saying that manspace should be interpreted the same way mankind is. Manspaces can take various different, and sometimes very surprising, forms although most of them are rooms or small buildings. Manspaces is all about getting away from things in order to wind down and relax.


Ewan McIntosh had an interesting story to tell about how he worked with the Scottish National Party during their historic win of this year’s election. He stressed that he isn’t politically active, but just likes to win. He told us a story about how they were able to crowdsource politics by using an online driven strategy. To succeed in this campaign they needed a strategy (e.g. to always be positive online), a clear message (e.g. to always deliver the same message) and learn how to listen (using social media). They spread good information and was able to find out who were for, against or unsure about specific and important political resolutions. The whole reason for the online effort was to make people do offline activities like discussing with people and of course voting. Ewan feels that they have changed how politicians in Scotland are listening to people.

Heather Knight did an inspiring presentation on robotics. Actually, she let her robot Data help her with part of her presentation – which he delivered in great style! Heather is interested in using robotics to help us communicate better with computers, and suggests that we should replace computers – not humans – with robots. Data even danced for us – or was it for Heather? Anyways, his dance was a much appreciated part of the conference that you too can see below.

Day 2


The Medium is the Message

Matthew Postgate talked about broadcasting in the information age. Obviously broadcasting has to evolve as the information age evolves. Matthew provided two interesting experiments initiatives coming from BBC. One of these initiatives was synchronizing interactive media with traditional TV programmes. The other was to me slightly more innovative and called sorround vision. Using special cameras they are able to project the surroundings of a (kind of) normal recording on the walls around the TV.

Caspar Berry delivered a very animated talk on uncertainty and risk in poker, business and life. He started off the presentation by explaining exactly how his presentation would end since on a previous occasion somebody had complained that they felt a bit uncertain as to where his presentation would go. A funny move from a man that knows very well that uncertainty is a part of our lives – whether we like it or not. The worst kind of uncertainties are the unknowns that are unknown, that is the things we don’t even know that we don’t know. Takes a minute or two to find out what that is, doesn’t it? He drew our attention to semingly unimportant details such as a small piece of metal lying on the runway when Concorde Flight 4590 was to take off, or exactly when (the exact second) our parents, grand-parents or grand-grand parents mated. Plane crashes and our very own existence is affected tremendously by details that we cannot control or even set in relation to important events – at least not before the events occur. This is hard to accept for mankind, since studies have shown that we need control. If we feel that we are out of control there may be serious impact on our health. Caspar illustrated this by telling us about several experiments involving electric shocks and taking away persons possibilities to affect their living conditions. Surprisingly, experiments with electric shocks distributed at random have been repeated on numerous occasions but the other experiment will probably not be repeated at all. The persons that were unable to affect their living died much earlier than the control groups. This need of being in control leads to a lot of behaviors, including that of trying to predict the future. Caspar recommends instead that we embrace uncertainties and adopt a language that acknowledges uncertainties. He ended his talk by stating that “it is only because tomorrow is uncertain, that today has any meaning for us at all” – if everything is certain there is no point in doing anything.

From data to wisdom

Chris Hatala and Wesley Burt from Massive Black made an impressive live demonstration creating original artwork and an animation on stage. We were also shown how a few interesting scenes of Lord of the ring, e.g. when Shelob wrapped Frodo (about 1:10 into the clip), came to life by the use of prototyping.

Dr. Vincent Li works on what could very well become a medical revolution. Normally our blood vessels grow very much when we are in the womb. Apart from that blood vessels grow during menstruation, pregnancy and when wounds are healing. Recent research shows that we need a good balance in how the vessels grow. A balance between growth and pruning. If that balance is upset it can lead to a variety of diseases. The only thing these diseases seem to have in common is their link to the growth of blood vessels – a.k.a. Angiogenesis. This knowledge has amongst other things led to new forms of cancer treatment. The theory behind it is that cutting off the blood supply to a tumor kills it. Since the blood vessels in the tumor is different from those in healthy tissue some drugs that are targeted to prune these blood vessels have been created, and in practice some amazing results have been shown. However, Vincent and many others with him would like to see better results. One big problem that greatly reduces the results is that cancer often is diagnosed in a late stage, remember Walters talk? Other interesting things have also been discovered about the drugs that affect angiogenesis. The active substances of the drugs can be found in our food, and experiments shows that combinations of substances can radically change their effect. So, it is entirely possible that foods can be more effective than drugs. This new knowledge has led to a new insight; Prevention of disease may be possible by eating the right foods. Green tea, dark chocolate and tomatoes are foods with specific effects that are being catalogued. Even the way foods are cooked may matter. An example is that tomatoes that have simmered in olive oil have a much better effect than raw or cooked tomatoes alone. It is in other words possible to eat to starve cancer in its infancy! Obesity is also a disease that is liked to angiogenesis. It is therefore possible to add, rather than to remove, foods to prevent obesity. There is a great and expanding catalogue of information around this topic to be found at eattodefeat.org, a site that is maintained by The Angionesis Foundation, a truly applaudable initiative! Vincents brother William did a similar talk on TED a while ago.

Jer Thorphe calls himself a digital artist and has worked a lot with data visualizations. In his talk he showed a graphical representation of twitter discussions concerning New York Times articles. These discussion threads are so complex and contain so much information that that graphical representation is necessary for humans to be able to analyze them. Using his tool he was able to pinpoint the tweets that lead to bursts in the conversations. He then went on to talk about Twin Tower Memorial. He was assigned with the task of devising an algorithm that took into account the relations between the victims of the 9-11 attack and then laid out the names in a suitable way. Names were carved into plates so that related names were close and all the names had a good position on the bars. Since there are a lot of aesthetics and judgment calls to be made in this kind of work, Jer developed an algorithm that delivered computer aided design instead of letting the computer do all the work. This project was only recently made public and you can read more about it in the New Yorker.

Cognitive surplus

Tan Le is without any doubt a world leader in the field of human-computer interfaces. Her team was faced with the task of finding an unobtrusive way of reading peoples mind, or rather reacting to different states in the brain. They considered several alternatives before settling for EEG. Although EEG was a promising technology the technical equipment that was available at the time was both expensive and difficult to operate. On top of that the resulting measurements were difficult to interpret correctly. After a period of intense research in the fields of hardware and software they have found a good solution. The have an open source headset with an accompanying software API Using this multiple companies have started to develop applications that Tan couldn’t have envisioned all by herself. There are games available where the gamer is empowered with telekinetic abilities but also applications for controlling wheelchairs. In fact there are already a number of products in the making in multiple fields. Tan even did a demonstration together with a brave guy from the audience that was fitted with the Emotiv Epoc headset. In just a short time he was able to use only his mind – hmm and the headset – to move a cube on the screen. Certainly interesting and inspiring. Around this time someone with a brain on hyperdrive tweeted that it would be cool to live in a world where we had robots like the one from Heather that used Wolfram Alpha to solve problems and that we could control by using the emotiv headset. To me that qualifies as a true vision, but maybe not a true prediction, for the future!


The conference was great, my compliments to the organizers, speakers and the talkative delegates. All these ideas and information will take some time to process. But I’m sure I will get a second crop out of it (apart from the nice experience of being here). It was definitely worth travelling through the ashes to get here. (But I do hope I’ll get back home…)

[update 2011-05-29]

Eat to Defeat and WolframAlpha – a fruitful cooperation?

I just had an idéa. How about letting the WolframAlpha team work with the Angiogenesis Foundation to make the datasets of Eat to Defeat computable? Wouldn’t it be great to be able to learn about suitable foods using age, gender, height, weight and perhaps symptoms, problems, diagnoses (e.g. allergies) as input? Apart from a list of suitable foods suitable combinations of foods and even recipes (plus things that I cannot imagine right now) could be presented in the results. I would certainly like to be able to do that!

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