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Personal Analytics

November 22nd, 2012

We had to spend a bit of time trying to find a better name for what we do than “User Centric Activity Data”. The UCIAD study report settled for “consumer activity data”, in relation to consumer data as considered for example in midata. However, for what concerns the tools that allow us to expose users to their own activity data (such as the UCIAD dashboard), we used the possibly more appropriate term of “personal analytics”. And personal analytics has received quite a lot of attention lately.

It started with Stephen Wolfram posting an article with a lot of analytics about his online activities. This has made quite a buzz, showing how (rather simple) computational techniques and visualisations could be quite revealing to an individual. As a follow-up from that, a personal analytics feature was added to Wolfram|Alpha, using the Wolfram|Alpha engine to provide analyses and visualisation of your activity on Facebook.

Another of such tools, which is currently very much at “prototype” level, is the MOLUTI chrome extension (see on the Chrome webstore). It shows you some interactive visualisations of you web history in the Chrome browser. What is interesting with this is the simple mechanism it provides to filter activities (e.g., on what web site did I look about “child stair gates” last week end?), and also that it makes it possible to share the results of these filters, in the form of what it calls “browse lists” (list of links with a tag cloud).

We argued in the past about the use of such tools, and for the advantages users might have from having access to ways to understand and query their own activities. No doubt that this area has a very bright future, as the need for these personal analytics tools can only grow with the increase in online activities.

The UCIAD User Study: Report

August 14th, 2012

Our goal for the second phase of the UCIAD project was to investigate, through a user study, how people would actually use their own activity data if they were to get access to it and how such access would impact on the organisation that has been collecting the data. We achieved that by building a a technical architecture, collecting data from Open University log systems and exposing them to the corresponding users, through a compelling interface. We collected reactions and thoughts from the users through individual interviews, questionnaires and a “focus group” meeting confronting the varying ideas and opinions about the overall notion of user-centric activity data (or as we might call them, in a simpler way, consumer activity data).

The results of this user study, together with more details on the methodology we employed and the technical platform are now summarised in a complete, self-contained report:


Consumer Activity Data: Usages and Challenges

This report is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution and the source code of most of the technological platform is available as open source software.

Personal Activity Data: Another Project

March 21st, 2012

UCIAD is about the integration and analysis of activity data originating from the logs of different websites of an organization, using the knowledge the organization has about these websites to provide users with ways to analyze their own online interactions with the organization. In another project called DATAMI (funded by the IKS Project), we are investigating how activity data from the whole Web traffic generated by a user can be semantically analyzed to extract ‘entities’ of interest to the user, in a “personal, semantic web history dashboard”.

A first, preliminary (video) demo of this application has been released today, that show the potential of the technologies developed in this project:

This result is of course not dissimilar to the video produced at the end of phase 1 of UCIAD, and clearly, the user-study we are currently setting-up for phase 2 will provide valuable results also for the DATAMI project.

Final post – Putting things together (with a demo)

August 5th, 2011

Over the last 6 months we have been working on building the UCIAD platform, experimenting with large-scale activity data, reflecting on user-centric data and blogging our thoughts. While, as can be seen from the last few posts on this blog, there is quite some work we think should follow from this, it is nice to see things finally coming together, and to be able to show a bit of the UCIAD platform with have been talking about for some times. What better way to do this than with a video of the running platform, showing the different components in action. (Note: it is better to watch it in 720p – HD).

This video shows a user (me) registering to the UCIAD platform with some setting details and browsing his activity data as they appear on several Open University websites (mostly, an internal wiki system and the Open University’s linked data platform – data.open.ac.uk). This video therefore integrates in a working demo the different components we have been talking about here:

  • User management: As we can see here, as the user registers into the UCIAD platform, his current setting is automatically detected, and other settings (other browsers) that are likely to be his are also included. As the user registers, the settings are associated to his account and the activity data realised through these settings are extracted.
  • Extracting user-centric activity data: As described in the first part of the blog post on reasoning (previous link), the settings associated with the user are used to extract the activity data around this particular user, creating a sub-graph corresponding to his activity.
  • Ontologies to make sense of activity data: The ontologies are used in structuring the data according to a common schema and to provide a base to homogeneously query data coming from different systems. As discussed below, they can also be extended (specified) so that different categories of activities and resources can be represented, and reasoned upon.
  • Ontological reasoning for analysis: What the demo video shows clearly is how the activity data is organised according to different categories (traces, webpages, websites, settings, etc.) coming from the base ontologies, but also according to classes of activities, resources, etc. that have been specially added to cover the websites and the particular user in this case. Here, we extended the ontology in order to include definitions of activities relevant to the use of a wiki and a data platform. The powerful aspect of using ontologies here is that such classes can be added to the ontology for the system to automatically process them and organise the data according to them. Here, for example, we define “Executing a SPARQL Query” as an activity that takes place on a SPARQL endpoint with a “query” parameter, or “Checking Wiki Updates” as an activity on a Wiki page that is realised through an RSS client.
  • Browsing data according to ontologies: We haven’t described this components yet, but we rely on an homemade “browser” that we use in a number of projects and that can inspect ontology classes and members of these classes, generating graphs and simple stats.

Next steps

There are a lot of things to mention here, some of them we have already mentioned several times. An obvious one is the finalisation, distribution and deployment of the UCIAD platform. A particular element we want to get done at a short term is to investigate the use of the UCIAD platform with various users, to see what kind of extensions of the ontologies would be commonly useful, and generally to get some insight into the reaction of users when being exposed to their own data.

More generally, we think that there is a lot more work to do on both the aspects of user-centric activity data and on the use of ontologies for the analysis of such data, as described in particular in our Wins and Fails post. These includes aspects around the licensing, distribution and generally management of user-centric data (as mentioned in our post on licensing). Indeed, while “giving back data to the users” is already technically difficult, there is a lot of fuzziness currently around the issues of ownership of activity data. This also forces us to look a lot more carefully at the privacy challenges that such data can generate, that didn’t exist when these data were held and stayed on server logs.

Beyond UCIAD and the Open University

As discussed in our post on the benefits of UCIAD, the issues considered go largely beyond the Open University and even activity data. The issues around licensing in particular are to be considered more broadly, in the same way as the challenges around communicating on user-centric data.

We have been focusing mostly on the technical issues in UCIAD, providing in this way a base framework to start investigating these broader and more complex challenges.

Most significant lessons

To put it simply, the most significant lessons we learnt (as mentioned in the wins and fails post) are:

  • Both user-centric data and ontologies are complex notions, so don’t assume they are understood.
  • Activity data are massive and complex, beyond what can be handled by current semantic data infrastructures, without a bit of clever management.
  • There is a lot of potential in using ontologies and ontological engineering for the analysis and interpretation of raw data.

Wins and fails (lessons along the way)

August 3rd, 2011

If there is one thing I like about the JISC activity data programme in which UCIAD is involved is that the instructions were very clear: your project is a short experiment, to see what could/should be done in the area of activity data in the context of higher education organisations (or at least, this is what I heard). We have integrated that a lot in UCIAD, starting from our two basic hypothesis that a user-centric perspective on activity data is relevant, and that Semantic Web technologies, especially ontologies, provided the right technological basis to achieve such a perspective.

We have discussed in a number of previous posts what we got excited about, what showed us the feasibility, relevance and potential impact of our approach, as well as what unexpected issues we had to face and how some of our assumptions turned out to be wrong. Here, we wanted to give a quick summary of these “wins” and “fails”, starting of course from the wins, and looking at the two aspects corresponding to our two hypothesis: the user-centric view and the semantic technologies view.

Wins – What went right

  • On the user-centric view: Giving data back to the user, user-centric data and consumer data were already emerging trends when we started the project, but clearly exploded as topics that organisations should take into account in the last few months. The New York Times article “Show Us the Data. (It’s Ours, After All.)” has in particular generated a lot of discussions amongst consumer representatives and “data-managers” in various organisations. The mydata project launched by the UK government is also a clear sign that the push for more transparency has to extend to private and public organisations dealing with people’s data. There have already been strong reactions from large companies such as Google, launching its own Data Liberation Front. Generally, users (will more and more) want, and assume the right to access their data and to use them to their own benefits. Only considering the feature of exporting one’s own activity data is technically non-trivial, but of obvious relevance in the current climate where a lot of emphasis is put on transparency, while personal information can be distributed in many different and isolated systems. Beyond the general climate, we have also shown that activity data is not only relevant as aggregated at the level of an organisation, but can give a new perspective when individual users are kept visible in the data (see this post for an explanation of what we mean here). To put it simply, giving people a view on their activity data provides a way for them to reflect on it, and to become more efficient in these activities. It also give them an opportunity to engage with the data, “customize” it, with added-value for the organisation.
  • On Semantic Technologues We have a lot of experience working with ontologies and semantic data, and were therefore confident that there was a great potential here. However, this is probably the point on which most people external to the project would think we had the best chance to fail: we believed that we could apply semantic technologies, linked data-based approaches and (most horribly) ontology-based reasoning to the manipulation, processing and analysis of activity data. Realising the experiments, setting up the UCIAD platform with real, large scale data, applying ontologies on top of these data and evolving these ontologies to create different views for the analysis of these data are, from my very personal point-of-view, the most interesting part of the project. Ontologies have acquired recently a bad reputation, and mentioning them (especially in the context activity data) now often leads to raised eyebrows and condescending looks. One thing that our experiments with UCIAD have shown is that working with ontologies not only has the advantages of introducing formality, shared vocabularies and semantics in our applications, but also represents a flexible and efficient way of introducing meaningful views into large amounts of raw, uninterpreted data. What ontologies bring into such an area is the ability to give definitions that will be at the basis of clustering and organising the data automatically. I can tell what I mean by a “search activity” and magically see all the traces related to search activities being put together, to become explorable and queryable (see our post on reasoning). The nice thing about UCIAD, is that this magic is actually implemented and working in the way we hypothesized it would. It is a fascinating thing to see raw data from log files being classified into meaningful categories of activities, resources and actors. It is even more fascinating knowing that we defined these groups, through encoding these definitions in an ontology, and can add others as we see fit. Due to time constraints, we could only experiment a tiny bit with this process, but we see a very promising approach in the incremental definition of the ontology as an analysis process: looking at the data, thinking that it would make sense to have an activity categorie such as for example “commenting on a blog”, and simply adding it to see the data being automatically reorganised with this new definition.

Fails – What went wrong

  • On the user-centric view: Our biggest failure in my opinion has been that we didn’t manage to communicate appropriately on the notions, approaches and change of perspective that the user-centric view on activity data represents. There are many reasons for this I believe, one being that we have been assuming that the benefits would be self-evident, while they clearly are not (see the post where we tried to get back the basis of the issue). The notion of user-centric data or consumer data might be very trendy, it does not mean that it is ready for wide adoption. There are many issues that need to be solved that go far beyond the purely technical aspects, and that simply come from the fact that activity data has never been looked at in this way before. We don’t really know what will happen in this space, what users would do with these data and how much interest this could generate for the organisation. There are many difficult questions that we could not really address in the scope of the project (including in particular the questions around data ownership, and privacy). While this is enough to keep us excited, there is enormous work to be done before the approach we have been promoting in UCIAD could reach its potential, and be widely adopted.
  • On Semantic Web technologies: While we are still excited about the added-value that semantic web technologies can bring to the analysis of activity data, we have been clearly over-optimistic regarding the maturity of some components we have been relying on, and their ability to handle the scale and complexity of the kind of data we are working with. This issue is clearly summarised in our post on the technical aspect of UCIAD. The good news is however that things are evolving very quickly. It would be a lot easier to implement the UCIAD platform now than it was 6 months ago, as the tools and platforms to deal with semantic data are getting more robust everyday. Also, the evolution of the technology should be followed by an evolution in the skills and ability of the community to adopt such technologies. Realising UCIAD made us reach a better understanding of what was feasible and required to set up a semantic platform for activity data. There is still much to do for such an approach to become feasible in a broader set of situations.

Benefits

July 29th, 2011

One of the major issues (which is going to be discussed in longer terms in the “Wins and Fails” post in the next few days) of the approach taken in UCIAD is to communicate on its benefits. One reason is that, to be fully honest, the mechanisms and the whole perspective we are taking on activity data are still too ‘experimental’ for us to fully understand these benefits yet. The other aspect of this is that at the core of our approach is a focus on the benefits of activity data to the end-user and not, as it would usually be the case, to the organisation. We therefore here quickly come back to what we have learnt on the advantages of our approach, first to the end-users, and then deriving potential benefits to the organisation. We summarise our view on the achievements of UCIAD in terms of benefits through a discussion regarding the success of the project, as seen as an experiment towards ontology-based, user-centric activity data.

Benefits to the end-user

There have been a number of places where the potential benefits of user-centric data (or consumer data) have been discussed, as generally labeled as “giving back their data to the users”. These include in particular the popular article “Show Us the Data. (It’s Ours, After All.)” by Richard H. Thaler in the New York Times. As was argued in particular in one of our previous posts, being able to give a complete account of what end-users could do with such data is both unfeasible and undesirable. However, we can summarise the expected benefits, and their connections to the work done in UCIAD, in three different areas:

  • Known yourself… and be more efficient: As we briefly discussed in our post on self-tracking, there is a trend currently regarding people, individuals, monitoring their own activities, statuses, etc. While some would criticise such attitude as pure narcissism, the reality is that monitoring oneself has been realised as one effective way to improve. In sport for example, monitoring performance in relation with other variables (health status, equipment used, etc.) is necessary to improve and achieve the best conditions, for the best results. Besides sports however, there are many areas where monitoring and understanding one’s own behaviour can help being more efficient. There is a large gap between an athlete measuring his/her performance and a user monitoring his/her online activities. However, for a user to know how he/she searched websites, find and exploit resources on the Web or engage with online communities, can only have a positive effect on his/her effectiveness in realising these tasks in the future.
  • Exploit your own data yourself: Besides the passive monitoring of activities, consumer data has often be described as exploitable by individuals. Indeed, in the current situation, organisations collect large amounts of data about their users, that they exploit to their own benefits, often for commercial purposes. Such personal data and profiles are being used and accessed by a large variety of agents, from the search engine that will send personalised results to the advertiser that will target you with specific products, except the user him/herself. For the users to have access, control and possibly ownership of their own data means that they could also exploit them, use them to build their own profiles that can be employed in communicating with other entities on the Web, under their own terms. In a more directly pragmatic way, the users can analyse their own data and build on top of them to extract relevant information to their own benefit. In UCIAD, we not only allow users to export their own data, but we do it using Semantic Web standards to ensure maximum reusability and, through relying on a customisable ontology, the exported data can be flexibly adapted to any kind of uses that the user might come up with, not only the ones that we have thought of.
  • Combine and integrate your own data: While we are still far from such a situation at this stage, we can easily imagine that, with the explosion of the number of systems providing an “export your own data” feature, users will eventually be able to build their own personal knowledge base, feeding it with personal data collected from the many online systems they use. Again, such a scenario requires a certain level of standardisation in the data representation formats being used, for which Semantic Web technologies appear as perfect candidates. A possibly less distant scenario is the one were users interacting with several organisations would export their activity data from the corresponding instances of the UCIAD platform. These data would naturally integrate to provide the user with the ability to monitor, analyse and exploit their activity data across numerous, originally disconnected organisations and websites.

Benefits to the organisation

As explained earlier, one of the core aspects of UCIAD has been to focus on the benefits of collecting and flexibly interpreting activity data to the end-user. This does not mean that the organisation has no interest in considering the type of technology we have been developing, but simply that the benefits to the organisation mostly come as derived from providing benefits to the end-users of the organisation:

  • Transparency: In very simple terms, users are more and more pushing organisation towards more accountability with respect to the data they collect about them. Deploying the UCIAD platform can be seen as a way for an institution to tell users “here is what we have about you in terms of activity data”.
  • Trust: In relation with the point above on transparency, providing collected data back to the user is a way to establish a stronger relationship with them: i.e., one where they can trust the organisation regarding the fair and transparent use of their activity data.
  • Leave data management to the user: Leaving the user in control of their own data can bring valuable benefits to the organisation. In particular, it means that the user can allow, or actively enable, the use of more data than what can be done when he/she is left out of the loop. It makes it possible for example for them to bring and import data they have collected from other systems and organisations, so that the same data does not have to be collected again, and the new organisation does not have to start from scratch.

How do we measure success?

So, now that we have listed all the expected benefits of the approach taken in UCIAD, the natural next question is “have we managed to bring all these benefits to our institution?”. The plain and honest answer is: No.

From the start, we have considered UCIAD as being an experiment (and actually, a rather short one). What we wanted to demonstrate was that:

  1. These benefits are achievable
  2. Technology, such as linked data and ontologies, make the approach feasible

The UCIAD platform demo, collecting log data from several webservers concerning around a dozen websites, interpreting this data in terms of user-activity, extracting the traces of activities around a given user and exposing the user to these traces in a meaningful way, provides an undeniable demonstration that the technical and technological mechanisms to achieve the UCIAD approach are applicable and effective.

We are currently demonstrating this platform to users of the Open University websites, and observing them in engaging with it, and so with their own activity data. This activity will carry on for some times after the end of the project so that we can learn as much as possible from the current state of the platform. However, from these initial discussions, it appears clearly that users are interested, even sometimes fascinated, with the idea of obtaining and using their own activity data. They are, as it has been happening for many systems outside UCIAD (e.g., Google, Facebook), very positive about such features being added to the websites of an organisation they spend so much time interacting with: their University. In many cases now, they are demanding it.

Explaining user-centric activity data

July 5th, 2011

I was today at the meeting of the JISC activity data programme, where all the projects in the programme came to discuss what they were doing, and what should be the priorities for the coming year(s). As some might have realised, I am actually a bit critical of this sort of discussions. Not that I think that the projects are doing the wrong things, just that there is a lot of catching up to do, and I think we might end up missing the next train (which I believe to be consumer data) while trying to catch up with the previous one (activity data-based recommander systems).

Anyway, I was trying to come up with a reasonable explanation regarding user-centric activity data (mostly based on showing evidence of the current trends in the industry, from energy providers showing users historic information on their own consumption to the Google Data Liberation front and the mydata project) when the ongoing discussion derived on the definition of simple things such as the notion of event. Trying to define the concepts we are talking about is the major goal of our ontologies. However, the discussion made me realised that we also needed a simplified overview of the kind of data we are dealing with, and of what made the difference between the organisation-centric view and the user-centric view of activity data.

Indeed, looking at the figure above, we can summarise very simply what we are dealing with in terms of activity data. Activity data is set of events (or the traces of these events) where an action is realised on a resource (e.g., a webpage) by an actor (most often a user). That is a general view of what we mostly have to consider as raw activity data. However, in order to extract anything meaningful from this data, looking at the raw collection of individual events isn’t going to give us much: we need to abstract the data into sets of events that are meaningful, and which distributions of characteristics can be interpreted.

The figure above represents the most common way of abstracting activity data: what we call the organisation-centric view. The idea is that large sets of events are being analysed that are realised by aggregated sets of users. There can be one set of users, like in the case of analytics system that provide statistics regarding actions realised by all visitors of a website, or the organisation can define sub-groups such as Students/Staff/External that are meaningful to the particular types of activities and analyses being considered. In this case, users stop existing individually in the abstracted activity data, as they only manifest as part of the aggregated statistics for their groups.

User-centric activity data is basically making the abstraction the other way around (see above): aggregating traces of activities around a given user, interpreted according to meaningful sets of resources and events. The challenge in this case (appart from the scalability of the approach, which is going to be the topic of another blog post sometimes) is in the way to define meaningful sets of resources and events. In the data we have been looking at, activities such as “commenting on a blog”, “searching a blog”, “querying linked data” or “using a web application” are clearly emerging, but the number and nature of the types of resources and events that can appear in the data is largely dependent on the system and the user. This is why we believe that using ontologies as a model to drive such abstractions is a good solution: it provides us with a flexible way to define types of resources (e.g., BlogPage, RSS feed, Linked Data endpoint) and the corresponding activities (e.g., commenting, querying, searching), and to automatically classify individual traces and resources into these types. The end result is the ability for individual users to visualise and analyse the distribution of their own activity data in these types and categories. Pushing it a step further, users should even be able to personalise the views, giving their own ontological definitions and obtaining data abstractions that are therefore more meaningful to them.

A colleague forwarded me today this article in french, where the author says (my translation): “What could I accomplish if I had at my disposal, in an exploitable form, the information regarding my pathways and communications? [...] Not only to control what others are doing with it, but to use it to my own benefit? Today, we tend to scratch our head and ask: what would be the use of that?”, and indeed we don’t really know what this will allow in the future. However, as the author of the article suggests, that shouldn’t stop us from trying to find out, as long as we are convinced there is something there to explore.

On Self-Tracking

May 18th, 2011

I have said it and repeated it numerous times, UCIAD is profoundly different from all the other JISC Activity data projects at many different levels. One of them, at the basis of our main hypothesis is that we consider activity data for the user’s own consumption, and to his/her own benefit. The team working in UCIAD has made this notion of user-centric personal information a guiding principle for research. With my colleague Matthew Rowe we recently described a major aspect of this research in a position paper for the W3C Workshop on Web Tracking and User Privacy: Self-tracking on the Web.

As described in the paper, entitled “Self-Tracking on the Web: Why and How“, self-tracking is “the activity of monitoring and analysing one’s own behaviour regarding personal information exchange and the consequences of such behaviour on their exposure, privacy and reputation“. We emphasize in this paper how existing tools and technologies to realise self-tracking on the Web are limited, especially in comparison with the tools and technologies used to track user activities and data to the benefit of organisations. The paper concluded that “achieving such a process of self-tracking can be very revealing to Web users, helping them reaching a better awareness of their own online behaviour, and a better understanding of the possible consequences of such behaviour on the exposure of their personal information. Such an approach appears to be crucially needed as the Web evolves to both a global information marketplace, and a major medium for all sorts of social interactions online. [...] We therefore argue that a more principled and comprehensive study of the activity of self-tracking on the Web and of the technological requirements for such an activity to take place should be conducted. This requires for both the social and conceptual models of the way personal information is exchanged on the Web to be related to the technological protocols that are used as mediums for instantiating these models. From a more concrete point of view, we believe that a new set of tools are to be created that will support users in monitoring their own activity on the Web

UCIAD can be seen as an experiment in this direction. Focusing on Web data related to the interaction between an user and an organisation, it is looking at the techniques, the models and the tools that are necessary to enable users to have a personalised view on their own data, i.e., the data generated by their own activity. More generally, it is also setting up generic models of activity online i.e., the ontologies and the associated technological components, that can be reused in broader environments.