Strata Week: Facebook builds a new look for old data

Facebook surfaces past status updates, particles defy physics, and data goes Hollywood in "Moneyball."

Here are a few of the data stories that caught my attention this week.

Facebook data and the “story of your life”

Last week at its F8 developer conference, Facebook announced several important changes, including updates to its Open Graph that enable what it calls “frictionless sharing” as well as a more visual version of users’ profiles — the “Timeline.” As is always the case with a Facebook update, particularly one that involves a new UI, there have been a number of vocal responses. And not surprisingly, given Facebook’s history, there have been a slew of questions raised about how the changes will impact users’ privacy.

Facebook Timeline

Some of those concerns stem from the fact that now, with the Timeline, a person’s entire (Facebook) history can be accessed and viewed far more easily. On stage at F8, CEO Mark Zuckerberg described the Timeline as a way to “curate the story of your life.” But whether or not you view the new visual presentation of your Facebook profile with such grand, sweeping terms, it’s clear that the new profile is a way for Facebook to re-present user data. Some of this data may be things that would have otherwise been forgotten — not just banal status updates, but progress in games, friendships made, relationships broken and so on. As Facebook describes it:

The way your profile works today, 99 percent of the stories you share vanish. The only way to find the posts that matter is to click ‘Older Posts’ at the bottom of the page. Again. And again. Imagine if there was an easy way to rediscover the things you shared, and collect all your best moments in a single place.

That new way was helped, in part, by Facebook’s hiring earlier this year of data visualization experts Nicholas Felton and Ryan Case. But turning old Facebook data into new user profiles has caused some consternation, including the insistence by Silicon Filter’s Frederic Lardinois that “sorry, Facebook, but the stuff I share on your site is not the story of my life.”

But it wasn’t an announcement from the stage at F8 that raised the most questions about Facebook data this week. Rather, it was a post by Nik Cubrilovic arguing that “logging out of Facebook is not enough.” Cubrilovic discovered that even if you log out of Facebook, its cookies persisted. “With my browser logged out of Facebook,” he wrote, “whenever I visit any page with a Facebook like button, or share button, or any other widget, the information, including my account ID, is still being sent to Facebook. The only solution to Facebook not knowing who you are is to delete all Facebook cookies.”

Facebook responded to Cubrilovic and addressed the issue so that upon logout the cookie containing a user’s ID is destroyed.

Web 2.0 Summit, being held October 17-19 in San Francisco, will examine “The Data Frame” — focusing on the impact of data in today’s networked economy.

Save $300 on registration with the code RADAR

Faster than the speed of light?

Just as some tech pundits were busy debating whether the latest changes to Facebook had “changed everything,” an observation by the physicists at CERN also prompted many to say the same thing — “this changes everything” — in terms of what we know about physics and relativity.

But not so fast. The scientists at the particle accelerator in Switzerland have been measuring how neutrinos change their properties as they travel. According to their measurements (some three years’ worth of data and 15,000 calculations), the neutrinos appeared to have traveled from Geneva to Gran Sasso, Italy, faster than the speed of light. According to Einstein, that’s not possible: nothing can exceed the speed of light.

CERN researchers released the data in hopes that other scientists can help shed some light on the findings. The scientists at Fermilab are among those who will pour over the information.

For those who need a little brushing up on their physics, an article at CNET has a good illustration of the experiment. High school physics teacher John Burk also has a great explanation of the discovery and the calculations behind it as well as insights into why the discovery and the discussions demonstrate good science (but in some cases, lousy journalism).

Data and baseball (and Brad Pitt)

MoneyballThe film “Moneyball,” based on the 2003 bestseller by Michael Lewis, was released this past week. It’s the story of Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane — played in the film by Brad Pitt — who helped revive the franchise by using data analysis to assemble his team.

Of course, stats and baseball have long gone hand in hand, but Beane argued that the on-base percentage (OPB) was a better indicator of a player’s strengths than just batting average. By looking at the numbers that other teams weren’t, Beane was able to assemble a team made up of players that other teams viewed as less valuable. (And by extension, of course, this helped Beane assemble that team at a much lower price.)

Thanks, in part, to Pitt’s star power, a story about data making a difference is a Hollywood hit, and the movie’s release has spurred others to ask if that sort of strategy can work elsewhere. In a post called “Moneyball for Startups,” SplatF’s Dan Frommer asked if it would be applicable to tech investing, a question that received a number of interesting follow-up discussions from around the web.

In a recent webcast, “Codermetrics” author Jonathan Alexander examined software teams through a “Moneyball” lens.

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