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Zanran – a new data search engine

April 21, 2011 4 comments

I’ve been playing with a new data search engine called Zanran – that focuses on finding numerical and graphical data. The site is in an early beta. Nevertheless my initial tests brought up material that would only have been found using an advanced search on Google – if you were lucky. As such, Zanran promises to be a great addition for advanced data searching.

Zanran.com

Zanran.com - Front Page

Zanran focuses on finding what it calls  ‘semi-structured’ data on the web. This is defined as numerical data presented as graphs, tables and charts – and these could be held in a graph image or table in an HTML file, as part of a PDF report, or in an Excel spreadsheet. This is the key differentiator – essentially, Zanran is not looking for text but for formatted numerical data.

When I first started looking at the site I was expecting something similar to Wolfram Alpha – or perhaps something from Google (e.g. Google Squared or Google Public Data). Zanran is nothing like these – and so brings something new to search. Rather than take data and structure or tabulate it (as with Wolfram Alpha and Google Squared), Zanran searches for data that is already in tables or charts and uses this in its results listing.

Zanran.com

Zanran.com Search: "Average Marriage Age"

The site has a nice touch in that hovering the cursor over results gives you the relevant data page – whether a table, a chart or a mix of text, tables or charts.

Zanran.com - Hovering over a result brings up an image of the data.

The advanced search options allow country searching (based on server location), document date and file type, each selectable from a drop-down box, as well as searches on specified web-sites.  At the moment only English speaking countries can be selected (Australia, Canada, Ireland, India, UK New Zealand, USA and South Africa). The date selections allow for the last 6, 12 or 24 months and the file type allows for selection based on PDF; Excel; images in HTML files; tables in HTML files; PDF, Excel and dynamic data; and dynamic data alone. PowerPoint and Word files are promised as future options. There are currently no field search options (e.g. title searches).

My main dislike was that the site doesn’t give the full URLs for the data presented. The top-level domain is given, but not the actual URL which makes the site difficult to use when full attribution is required for any data found (especially if data gets downloaded, rather than opening up in a new page or tab).

Zanran.com has been in development since at least 2009 when it was a finalist in the London Technology Fund Competition. The technology behind Zanran is patented and based on open-source software, and cloud storage. Rather than searching for text, Zanran searches for numerical content, and then classifies it by whether it’s a table or a chart.

Atypically, Zanran is not a Californian Silicon Valley Startup, but is based in the Islington area of London, in a quiet residential side-street made up of a mixture of small mostly home-based businesses and flats/apartments. Zanran was founded by two chemists, Jonathan Goldhill and Yves Dassas, who had previously run telecom businesses (High Track Communications Ltd and Bikebug Radio Technologies) from the same address. Funding has come from the London Development Agency and First Capital among other investors.

Zanran views competitors as Wolfram Alpha, Google Public Data and also Infochimps (a database repository – enabling users to search for and download a wide variety of databases). The competitor list comes from Google’s cache of Zanran’s Wikipedia page as unfortunately, Wikipedia has deleted the actual page – claiming that the site is “too new to know if it will or will not ever be notable“.

Google Cache of Zanran's Wikipedia entry

I hope that Wikipedia is wrong and that Zanran will become “notable” as I think the company offers a new approach to searching the web for data. It will never replace Google or Bing – but that’s not its aim. Zanran aims to be a niche tool that will probably only ever be used by search experts. However as such, it deserves a chance, and if its revenue model (I’m assuming that there is one) works, it deserves success.

Telling stories – fairy tales, case-studies & scenarios….

April 14, 2011 5 comments

Telling Stories - At the ICI/Atelis competitive intelligence conference that took place last week (April 6-7, 2011) in Bad Nauheim, Germany there was a panel discussion on story-telling as a method of reporting intelligence. At about the same time, the Association of Independent Information Professionals (AIIP) held their 25th annual conference in Vancouver, Washington in the USA. Mary-Ellen Bates described how stories can help information professionals market themselves by showing how their skills can solve client problems. The fact that both conferences looked at story-telling shows how businesses are adopting the technique as a way of addressing complex issues.

Story telling is an ancient art-form that might seem strange as a business tool. However, often stories will be an excellent approach for solving business questions as they allow people to look at a situation objectively, remove themselves from the scene and take an outside view. The trick is to tell the right story, catching the imagination and making people think. During the ICI / Atelis conference I suggested a framework for when different story styles can be used.

The first story type is the “fairy-tale” – the “Once Upon a Time in a Kingdom Far Away” type of story. Fairy-tales are possibly the most abstract example of a story that can be applicable to business. The danger is that they can be seen as childish and far-removed from real-world business realities. In fact, they can be a powerful way of highlighting deep-seated organisational problems, as management refusal to see such problems can be illustrated with stories. Such stories can help managers recognise their own situation, and so identify the problems and think of possible solutions.

Consider a company where the CEO or other senior management refuse to see that their business has changed.  Often such management grew up in the industry and believe that they know it inside out. Accepting that things have changed is anathema to them. A standard comment given by such managers when asked why things are done in a particular way is “We’ve always done it that way“. Essentially such management suffers from corporate denial – or what Ben Gilad called a business taboo in his book “Business Blindspots“.

Telling such managers a fairy-tale story can help them see the problem (assuming that you can arrange a session they will be willing to attend).

Once upon a time, in a far-away country there was a king who loved to sing. He loved to sing so much that he made laws that all his people were to learn his favourite songs.

Every Sunday, the people were to gather in the town squares and village greens and sing the songs the king loved.  The people were happy as they also loved the music and they prided themselves as being the most musical people in the world.

One day, a travelling minstrel sailed into the the kingdom from across the sea – singing a new song. Soon, children started to sing this new song, followed by their parents, and word reached the king that the people were no longer singing the king’s songs but were singing something different.

The king flew into a rage, and put the minstrel into a deep and dark dungeon. However this didn’t stop the minstrel singing – and soon the guards started to sing the new song. The king then made laws saying the new song lacked harmony, was discordant, and that anybody caught singing it would be severely punished.

Gradually the people became unhappier. They liked the new song and wanted to sing it along with the old songs. Instead they stopped singing – and the king got angrier and angrier that his songs were no longer being sung. He tried to force people to sing, but they just sang out-of-tune. He made new laws that said they had to sing on Sundays and Mondays, but found that lots of people said they’d lost their voices from singing so much and so couldn’t sing on Sundays or Mondays. And so the king also got unhappier as he no longer heard his songs being sung as in the past….

The basic lesson for a story such as this is to accept and embrace change – rejecting change is likely to be self-defeating. There are many companies and industries that fail in this – the music industry being a classic example, that lost out by refusing to recognise the impact of music downloading, Napster, iTunes and peer-to-peer file sharing. A fairy-story can help highlight the problems – although the solution will need to come from full discussion and management acceptance.

The second story-type is the traditional case-study. Case studies should be used where the organisation knows the problem, but not the solution. Finding the solution directly is difficult as management is too close to the situation. The case-study serves as a way of examining the problem dispassionately, by looking at a parallel situation involving a company or organisation, from another industry, or market. The aim is to analyse the problem and work out appropriate strategies to solve the problem and apply them to the real situation. The key for a case-study is to find one that matches the organisation’s problems. There is a vast bank of case-studies for a range of industries, topics and problems at the Case Study Clearing House.

A third story-type are future scenarios, generally generated as part of a scenario-planning exercise. Such stories attempt to answer “what if” questions by looking at external factors and their correlations and impacts, and then considering how these could play out in the future. It is essential that such scenarios are internally consistent and that there is a clear line of development from the current situation to the future scenario. This can then allow for strategies to be put in place that take into account what could happen. Such strategies need to be adaptable to changing situations and allow for organisations to prepare for any eventuality.

As a reporting approach, telling stories is one way of putting across ideas that stimulate the imagination, and so can help organisations develop strategies that lead to success. There is a common theme to all three story types: problem identification, its acceptance and the need for strategies to cope with change. They differ in their perspective on the world. The fairy-tale approach looks at understanding problems and overcoming blindspots that relate to the past imposing on the present; case studies look at solving present problems; scenarios are aimed at preparing organisations for the future.

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