The Oaks Ignore Their Pleas

An Afternoon at the @Xconomy Data and Devices Conference

Posted in General by Jeff Graves on November 22, 2013

After being an avid reader of Xconomy for the last couple of years, I was finally able to attend one of their events yesterday.  Their Data and Devices conference was held at the Fidelity Center for Applied Technology, a pretty cool space to begin with. All in all, it was a pretty good take, with lots of energy and plenty of good content.  Most of the session took the form of panel discussions, which allowed for a large number of viewpoints and experiences to be shared, but it also meant that each panelist only had a few minutes in the spotlight.  The short timeslots allowed for a number of panels and speakers to be rotated through; they were all fascinating, but here are the ones that made the most impact with me.

The session started with a great demo from Stephen Wolfram, creator of the Wolfram Alpha knowledge engine, and the Mathematica computational engine.  After showing off some of the power of both tools, he launched into a demo of his new Wolfram Language, a robust computer language that’s based in the principles of Alpha and Mathematica.  I know I’m not doing it justice, but essentially, he’s built a language that allows for some incredibly powerful capabilities that introduces the concept of “knowledge-based” programming.  He showed off a quick demo of the Wolfram Language running on a Raspberry Pi processor, and announced that the Pi will now come bundled with the Wolfram Language and Mathematica, which ensures that Santa will be delivering a Pi to my house in a few weeks.

Chris Lynch, venture capitalist at Atlas Ventures and former CEO of Vertica, and Brian Shin, CEO of Visible Measures and founder of a cool startup called Mustbin held a lively discussion on the meaning of “big data”, and how the Boston tech scene can continue to grow and prosper.  Each came from a different direction – Lynch looked at Big Data and startups from an enterprise perspective, while Shin’s focus was more on the personal or consumer space.  The conversation was pretty wide ranging, though, with moderator Greg Huang from Xconomy steering them into privacy, the Boston startup scene, and the general challenges of running a startup firm.

Perhaps the most sobering panel was one on “Big Data Security and Privacy”.  The panel was comprised of senior execs from three companies focusing on different components of the security problem –  the data level, the endpoint level, and at the application level.  That format made for a great discussion on the challenges and opportunities for protecting enterprise and personal data, and the three panelists also worked well to complement each other’s positions.  While one of the most quotable moments came when Bob Brennan let the audience know that one of the common “Flashlight” apps available in the App Stores secretly downloads and sells your address book, the real value to the session for me was getting a top to bottom perspective on data security, and being reminded of the many ways “the bad guys” can disrupt our personal and business digital lives.

The final keynote paired two R.R. Donnelly CEO Tom Quinlan and MIT Media Lab Professor Sandy Pentland for a discussion on where Big Data might bring us.  The content was largely focused on 150 year-old printer R.R. Donnelly’s efforts to remain relevant in the digital age, through use of their existing technology that processes huge amounts of data each day, and extending that into a kind of “postal exchange”, where your paper mail might all get digitized and made available to you each day via the internet.  It’s a fascinating concept, but one that might evoke some concern about the use of personal data – while Quinlan painted a picture of a world where companies can offer you better products because they “know” you better based on the contents of your mail, I can’t help wonder about what else they could do with that data.  Professor Pentland offered some insight when he posited that firms would be able to manage risk better with all of that data, potentially offering better and more targeted healthcare plans, for example.

All in all, a really thought-provoking afternoon, and I thank Xconomy founder Bob Buderi and Deputy Editor Gregory Huang for putting on a great event.

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