Recently I was listening to a fascinating podcast with Tristan Harris . Tristan used to work in Google and held the title “Design Ethicist” and if that job title alone isn’t enough to pique your interest then I don’t know what will.
Harris has recently got a lot of coverage from his ideas, notably, he was on a 60 minutes interview on CBS which was likely one of the main springboards for his recent explosion of coverage. Where I happened to come across him was on Sam Harris podcast. This podcast was entitled “What Technology Is Doing To Us”. Personally, I would have been tempted to call it too many Harris’s, but I guess I will accept the real title as perhaps a little more intriguing.
On the whole I would recommend everyone to check out either the 60 minutes piece, the Sam Harris podcast or Tristan’s recent Ted talk which seems to cover the main themes discussed on Sam Harris’s podcast. My personal recommendation would be the former as I highly enjoyed it. Sam Harris is an excellent interlocutor and the discussion between them is really enjoyable and informative. Of course doing this will take two hours of your time so if you want the 12-minute version go for the Ted talk.
Assuming that you are still reading and haven’t yet gone to listen to the podcast or watch the video, a very simple short summary is that Harris is fascinated and obsessed with what he terms the “Attention Economy” and how tech companies spend a massive amount of time and resource doing everything they can to grab as much of your attention as they possibly can. Their whole raison d’etre is to convince you to spend as much time as possible on their site or in their app.
What Tristan Harris is concerned with, and what really got me thinking is one fundamental question… is this a good use of your time?When you find yourself endlessly scrolling through your Facebook/Twitter/Instagram feed, are you doing something worthwhile?
Time is a limited resource and some would say it is our single most important and precious resource. How many people on their deathbed will think
“I wish I had spent more time on Facebook”
I was initially fascinated by this from a purely personal perspective. In fact since listening to this I’ve drastically cut down my usage of social media and my phone generally. Now I could go into a lot of detail here about how the algorithms behind these feeds are incredibly clever and good at keeping us engaged, but I’m going to defer to Tristan Harris on this. He understands it better than I so once more I recommend you check him out.
After my initial personal interest, I started to think about this from a professional perspective too.
One of our key areas of focus at Analytics Engines is to help our clients optimise and automate their analytics processes. Well… that’s how I normally tend to think about it. Really though, to take a slightly different angle on it, what we are all about is helping people spend their time better. If you’re working in business intelligence (BI), we collate and integrate your data assets so that all your data is there at your fingertips, ready to work with without all the data loading and cleansing drudgery.
If you’re working in bioinformatics, we work with you to implement automated pipelines enabling you to bring multiple technologies that usually require multiple manual steps into a single tool (PipelineArchitect™) that can massively reduce the amount of hands-on time required for analysis. This is something we did with Almac reducing their hands on time from 10s of hours to less than 15 minutes for a major analysis .
We are currently working with an organisation to implement automated data dashboard applications. They currently have multiple people in multiple departments providing data sources. They have staff collating, analysing, formatting and presenting these on a monthly basis. The total amount of time for this is hard to figure out exactly, but it seems there is probably the equivalent of 2 full FTEs required to carry out this reporting. Our objective is to turn this into something that is automated and all the end user has to do to view a report is drop a data file into a folder and hit refresh on their browser.
To be clear though, we are not trying to automate and replace people. The 2X FTE being used here is across multiple people in multiple departments. People for whom this is not their main focus and is, if anything, a distraction and imposition on their time.
Through automation, streamlining, data integration and provision of the right data stores for the right data and the right tools to work with that data we aim to help our users make better use of their time. We don’t want to replace people, we want to free up highly skilled individuals to do their jobs better by focusing on what’s important to them and what matters rather than the simple tasks that can and should be automated.
Another fascinating example of this is a project that I’m involved in to try and improve productivity and efficiency within hospitals. We are working with the Pharmacy team in one of the health trusts here in Northern Ireland to build an application for them. This is an SBRI project and the focus of it was to facilitate staff deployment. When the project kicked off at the start of this year, one of the first steps we took was to visit the pharmacists in the hospital and to spend some time talking with them about what challenges they faced in their jobs. We spent some time shadowing them to understand what they did, where the barriers were and how they interacted with the current systems and what were the key issues that impacted their ability to focus on what they really cared about, ie the patients in the hospital. From the outset, our objective was to build a product for the pharmacists based on their needs that they would want to use. Not just to build it for them but to build it with them. So we engaged with the team in an agile manner, working in sprints and having regular meetings with them showing them what we had done, getting their feedback and making changes and updates accordingly. Through this process, we built an application that the team want to use that will help them use their time better and more efficiently and ultimately that will benefit the key person in this context… the patient.