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Building a business that combines human experts and data science

The O’Reilly Data Show podcast: Eric Colson on algorithms, human computation, and building data science teams.

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In this episode of the O’Reilly Data Show, I spoke with Eric Colson, chief algorithms officer at Stitch Fix, and former VP of data science and engineering at Netflix. We talked about building and deploying mission-critical, human-in-the-loop systems for consumer Internet companies. Knowing that many companies are grappling with incorporating data science, I also asked Colson to share his experiences building, managing, and nurturing, large data science teams at both Netflix and Stitch Fix.

Augmented systems: “Active learning,” “human-in-the-loop,” and “human computation”

We use the term ‘human computation’ at Stitch Fix. We have a team dedicated to human computation. It’s a little bit coarse to say it that way because we do have more than 2,000 stylists, and these are very much human beings that are very passionate about fashion styling. What we can do is, we can abstract their talent into—you can think of it like an API; there’s certain tasks that only a human can do or we’re going to fail if we try this with machines, so we almost have programmatic access to human talent. We are allowed to route certain tasks to them, things that we could never get done with machines. … We have some of our own proprietary software that blends together two resources: machine learning and expert human judgment. The way I talk about it is, we have an algorithm that’s distributed across the resources. It’s a single algorithm, but it does some of the work through machine resources, and other parts of the work get done through humans.

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Is 2016 the year you let robots manage your money?

The O’Reilly Data Show podcast: Vasant Dhar on the race to build “big data machines” in financial investing.

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In this episode of the O’Reilly Data Show, I sat down with Vasant Dhar, a professor at the Stern School of Business and Center for Data Science at NYU, founder of SCT Capital Management, and editor-in-chief of the Big Data Journal (full disclosure: I’m a member of the editorial board). We talked about the early days of AI and data mining, and recent applications of data science to financial investing and other domains.

Dhar’s first steps in applying machine learning to finance

I joke with people, I say, ‘When I first started looking at finance, the only thing I knew was that prices go up and down.’ It was only when I actually went to Morgan Stanley and took time off from academia that I learned about finance and financial markets. … What I really did in that initial experiment is I took all the trades, I appended them with information about the state of the market at the time, and then I cranked it through a genetic algorithm and a tree induction algorithm. … When I took it to the meeting, it generated a lot of really interesting discussion. … Of course, it took several months before we actually finally found the reasons for why I was observing what I was observing.

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Investing in big data technologies

The O’Reilly Data Show podcast: A fireside chat with Ben Horowitz, plus Reynold Xin on the rise of Apache Spark in China.

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In this special holiday episode of the O’Reilly Data Show, I look back at two conversations I had earlier this year at the Spark Summit in San Francisco. The first segment is an on-stage fireside chat with Ben Horowitz, co-founder of Andreessen Horowitz and author of The Hard Thing About Hard Things.

In the second segment, Reynold Xin, one of the architects of Apache Spark, explains the rise of Apache Spark in China.

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Building a scalable platform for streaming updates and analytics

The O’Reilly Data Show podcast: Evan Chan on the early days of Spark+Cassandra, FiloDB, and cloud computing.

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In this episode of the O’Reilly Data Show, I sit down with Evan Chan, distinguished engineer at Tuplejump. We talk about the early days of Spark (particularly his contributions to Spark/Cassandra integration), his interesting new open source project (FiloDB), and recent trends in cloud computing.

Bringing Apache Spark & Apache Cassandra together

Datastax credits me with inspiring them to bring Spark into Cassandra … I think they’re very generous about that. I think I was one of the first folks to talk about the possibility of bringing Cassandra and Spark together. The vision that I saw was that Cassandra was really good for real-time updates, but what if we’re able to do more analytical queries on it? Then you could combine, basically, a platform that is really good for real-time updates with analytics.

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Graph databases are powering mission-critical applications

The O’Reilly Data Show Podcast: Emil Eifrem on popular applications of graph technologies, cloud computing, and company culture.

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While most people associate graphs with social media analysis, there are a wide range of applications — including recommendations, fraud detection, I.T. operations, and security — that are routinely framed using graphs. This wide variety of use cases has led to rise to many interesting tools for storing, managing, visualizing, and analyzing massive graphs. The important thing to note is that graph databases are not limited to reporting and analytics, but are also being used to power mission critical applications.

In this episode of the O’Reilly Data Show, I sat down with Emil Eifrem, CEO and co-founder of Neo Technology. We talked about the early days of NoSQL, applications of graph databases, cloud computing, and company culture in the U.S. and Sweden.

Graph and NoSQL databases

The relational database had been an accelerator, and here it’s really slowing us down. What we ended up concluding was that the problem was this mismatch between the shape of the data and the abstractions that were exposed by our infrastructure. At that point, we said, okay, what if we had a database that just exposed these amazing network-oriented data structures or graph-oriented data structures, but other than that, had all the properties of a relational database. Wouldn’t that be great? …  Ultimately, we said the famous last words: ‘Hey, let’s just build it ourselves. How hard can it be?’ It turns out it’s 15 years later!

2007 is when both the Dynamo paper had been published and the BigTable paper had been published out of Amazon and Google, respectively. That’s when, in early adopter circuits, the discourse started to change … maybe the era of the one-size-fits-all database is over. Maybe our job isn’t to take all of our data and shove it through a relational database. Maybe there are some other tools and technologies and abstractions out there that make better sense for some data. That was in ’07.  I really think it was as if lightning struck in the community. … . [Dynamo and BigTable were announced] and the next day, 12 open source projects, implementing it, and then the next day, 24 new ones. It was just crazy back then.

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Jai Ranganathan on architecting big data applications in the cloud

The O’Reilly Data Show podcast: The Hadoop ecosystem, the recent surge in interest in all things real time, and developments in hardware.

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Given the quick pace of innovation in the data ecosystem, we like to take a step back from the details of individual components, architecture, and applications, in order to take a wider view of the landscape of big data. This allows us to evaluate the progress of technology and infrastructure along the way, shifting our attention from the details of individual components like Spark and Kafka, to larger trends.

Some of the larger trends we’ve been exploring include the capabilities of distributed machine learning and the tradeoffs and design decisions involved in cloud architecture and stream processing.

In this episode of the O’Reilly Data Show, I sat down with Jai Ranganathan, senior director of product management at Cloudera. We talked about the trends in the Hadoop ecosystem, cloud computing, the recent surge in interest in all things real time, and hardware trends:

Large-scale machine learning

This sounds a bit like this should already exist in really good form right now, but one of the things that I’m really interested in is expanding the set of capabilities for distributed machine learning. While there are systems out there today that do do this, I think relative to what you can experience from a singular environment learning scikit-learn or R, the set of things you can do in a distributed fashion is limited. …  It’s not easy to distribute various algorithms and model-building techniques. I think there is still a lot of work for us to do to improve that experience. … And I do want to have good open source options like MLlib. MLlib may be the right answer. I would be perfectly happy if that’s the final answer, but we do need systems just to provide the kind of depth that you typically are used to in the singular environment. That’s just a matter of time and investment because these are non-trivial problems, but they are things that people are working on.

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