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8 must-see TED talks for IT pros

By John Brandon
August 27, 2010 06:00 AM ET

Gary Flake on extreme data visualization

Date: February 2010
Length: 6 minutes, 18 seconds

One of the most startling aspects of this brief TED talk by Gary Flake, the founder and director of Microsoft Live Labs, is that it shows in quick succession how graphical representations of live online data can help you understand concepts in ways that text or static charts never could.

Flake demonstrates Live Labs' Pivot project by showing mortality rates for men and women of different ages, then filtering the data to reveal patterns -- such as the fact that accidents are the leading cause of death for males under 40. Each time Flake clicks, the on-screen data rearranges itself in a visually striking way.

In another example, Flake quickly navigates through a database containing all of the Sports Illustrated magazine covers ever published. He drills down through a specific decade, year and issue to see all the athletes mentioned in that issue. Selecting an athlete shows all issues that athlete has appeared in; selecting the athlete's sport shows all issues that mention that sport.

Flake's ability to rapidly move closer into the data, then out in a different direction, seeing new connections all the while, is eye-popping. He calls it "zoomable technology."

Gary Flake: Is Pivot a turning point for Web exploration?
© TED Conferences LLC, distributed under Creative Commons license.

The Pivot project is no mere demo -- it is available for download at GetPivot.com. Live Labs encourages developers to be creative and develop their own "collections" that allow other users to visualize data. For example, one visualizer has gathered venues for wedding receptions in the U.K., which can be searched and filtered by region, venue type, capacity and so on.

Since Flake's TED talk, Live Labs has continued to push Pivot forward. Recently, the team released an online version of the app called PivotViewer, which is a Silverlight control. "The control enables anyone to embed the Pivot experience directly within their own Web site," Flake says.

"We've also made several new tools available to simplify the process of building collections, including command-line collection-building utilities and a just-in-time server reference design for tackling larger data sets," he adds. "The first collections began to appear online the same day as the control."

Reality check: One major challenge for making Pivot a trusted service, according to Peddie, is that like any tool that uses Web data, Pivot is only as reliable as its source material. Peddie also questions the practical uses for the visualization tool.

Live Labs has created a tool that embeds Pivot directly into Microsoft Excel; although Microsoft has announced no plans for Pivot in Excel, it's easy to imagine Pivot eventually becoming part of Microsoft Office.

Jane McGonigal on how gamers can save the world

Date: February 2010
Length: 20 minutes, 4 seconds

Humans spend 3 billion hours per week playing online games. That's lot of brainpower. In her talk, game designer Jane McGonigal explains that this time could be parlayed into a massive cooperative research project. In fact, she wants us to connect up even more, to the point where we spend up to 21 billion hours per week playing problem-solving games.

She points out some interesting numbers in her talk: Recent Carnegie Mellon research that says that young people in countries with strong gaming cultures play games for an average of 10,000 hours before they're 21. Coincidentally, Malcolm Gladwell posits in his book Outliers that it takes 10,000 hours to become really good any anything. That means today's gamers are virtuosos.

Now imagine what would happen if these gamers spent millions of hours applying their gaming expertise to collectively solving problems such as world poverty, the economic crisis or our dependence on oil.

Jane McGonigal: Gaming can make a better world.
© TED Conferences LLC, distributed under Creative Commons license.

McGonigal's talk is rapid-fire and convincing as she moves quickly from the basic tenets into three examples of games she has created at the Institute for the Future. Her latest game, called Evoke, is designed to help gamers solve an economic crisis as they complete 10 quests. The idea is that gamers develop their own unique ideas for, say, bringing clean water to people in isolated areas or developing a new mass transit system.

Reality check: The problem with McGonigal's theory, says Rob Enderle, principal analyst at Enderle Group, is that the incentive to play games is often not the reward or the outcome, but the entertainment value. People do not play Call of Duty to get the badge of honor at the end, but mainly because it's fun to shoot a high-powered rifle. To make gaming-for-the-world work, he says, the games need to be more engaging and just plain fun.



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