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U.K. agency uses Oracle analytics to ID annual savings

A top United Kingdom government agency turned to the Oracle analytics platform in pursuit of a billion pounds sterling ($1.23 billion USD) in annual cost savings.

The National Health Service Business Services Authority (NHSBSA), part of the U.K.’s Department of Health with a focus on supporting the government-run National Health System, manages 36 billion pounds of the NHS’ spending each year.

In 2014, the agency was told to identify and deliver the recurring savings by 2018. Analytics would be key in carrying out the mandate, said Andrew Mason, the NHSBSA’s data warehouse and BI manager, appearing Thursday at a session of the virtually held Oracle Analytics Summit. Oracle is spacing out the event, which started May 12, until August 18.

“It was this really that kick-started the data, analytics and insight area of the NHSBSA,” Mason said. “We set up a data science team. We quickly identified 100 million pounds worth of savings in the first six months, and that got us the buy-in [from the NHS] we needed to carry on our analytics journey.”

After building a data and analytics team, the NHSBSA considered various analytics platforms, including Informatica and even building its own. Ultimately, with its data coming in from both internal and external sources as well as on premises and from the cloud, the agency chose the Oracle analytics suite with Oracle Exadata as its database platform.

“At that moment in time — and probably still is — [we believe] it’s the best hardware you can buy for this kind of analytics,” Mason said, referring to the Exadata platform’s servers. “It was secure, it was stable, and we had lots of support from Oracle helping us get set up.”

Two years later, in 2016, the NHSBSA expanded its analytics capabilities to make data the driver behind its decisions. It began developing machine learning algorithms, building up its enterprise data warehouse and further developing its business intelligence capabilities by adding Oracle Analytics Cloud.

That allowed the agency to make more sense of its transactional data, evolve its internal management information and improve its products and services, all of which lead to cost efficiencies.

Now, using the Oracle analytics platform, the NHSBSA is able to bring all of its raw data into a landing area, move it into a staging area where it gets transformed, visualize the data and finally use it to create aggregate tables and prebuilt reports. And according to Mason, the agency’s analytics stack from Oracle can load 1.5 million database transactions in 45 minutes, stage the data in another 90 minutes, and move it to the final stage for analysis in 12 more minutes.

By 2019, the NHSBSA had reached the target of identifying savings of a billion pounds, and data analytics supported that to the tune of over 800 million pounds. But we didn’t stop there. We continue to push ourselves in the data and analytics arena.
Andrew MasonData warehouse and BI manager, U.K. National Health Service Business Services Administration

Meanwhile, the agency has 4,000 registered users running about 8,000 queries per day, each of which averages just 14 seconds.

“By 2019, the NHSBSA had reached the target of identifying savings of a billion pounds, and data analytics supported that to the tune of over 800 million pounds,” Mason said. “But we didn’t stop there. We continue to push ourselves in the data and analytics arena.”

Among the ways the Oracle analytics platform helped the NHSBSA find ways to reduce spending is to identify fraud and waste.

Mason said that over a billion pounds in U.K. healthcare funding is lost to fraud annually, and “data and analytics can help tackle this.” It can help identify such fraud as incidences of unnecessary prescriptions and activity in the name of deceased patients.

Meanwhile, the NHSBSA’s use of Oracle analytics can help it identify wasted spending on brand-name pharmaceuticals when generic options are available, according to the agency.

Another way the Oracle analytics platform helps the agency reduce costs is to improve prescription behavior, in particular over-prescribing of antibiotics and other drugs. It also can help pinpoint incidences of polypharmacy, the taking of medications concurrently that can sometimes lead to dangerous consequences.

A patient holds a bottle of medication while looking up information on her phone.
A patient looks up information about medication.

“The data scientists did the grunt work,” Mason said. “They came up with the insights, and then we productionized that through our data warehouse and BI dashboards and started pushing that data out to the wider NHS to start improving behaviors as well as putting that data in the hands of policymakers to make more informed decisions.”

Over the past two years, according to Mason, general practitioners in the U.K. had prescribed more than a million fewer antibiotics. Meanwhile, nearly 10,000 fewer patients are on 10 or more medications.

Now, amid the COVID-19 crisis, the NHSBSA is using the Oracle analytics platform to help the U.K. combat the virus.

Its data has helped reduce in-office visits by identifying patients who could benefit from getting prescriptions filled electronically, The data also identifies potential pressures on pharmacists by looking at how many regular customers are over 70 years old. In addition, the system helps administrators discover who should be on the U.K.’s shielded patient list — those at high risk of complications who were advised at the start of the lockdown to stay at home for 12 weeks.

“For our data sets to be used in such important work, I don’t think there’s any bigger compliment,” Mason said. “It makes all the blood, sweat and tears worth it.”

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Cohesion is latest Acquia acquisition

Acquia has acquired United Kingdom-based company Cohesion, the creator of DX8, it recently announced.

Acquia is a SaaS company, headquarted in Boston, created to provide enterprise products, services and technical support for the open-source web CMS platform Drupal. Cohesion’s DX8 is an enterprise-level, low-code Drupal website builder that enables in-browser creation of themes, layouts and pages.

The Acquia acquisition is intended to help content marketers and site builders with minimal coding skills create scalable Drupal sites from scratch up to four times faster, according to the company. Acquia also claims Cohesion DX8 will help provide brand consistency across websites.

Dries Buytaert, CTO and co-founder of Acquia and founder of Drupal, said that the Acquia acquisition won’t affect current Cohesion customers.

“There will be no change to support arrangements for Cohesion DX8 customers who have current contracts in 2019,” he said. “Acquia will notify and engage with Cohesion DX8 customers if any changes are envisioned.”

He added that he anticipates the Acquia acquisition benefiting the customers of both companies.

“It helps customers realize significant savings in development and maintenance costs,” he said. “Marketers can publish content more quickly and without the involvement of developers. Cohesion will also appear for customers who are getting started with Drupal. The tool makes it easier for content marketers and site builders with minimal coding skills to be productive and see creative results faster.”

Buytaert declined to disclose the specifics of the deal but said the chance to bring more value to customers was the driving factor.

“The addition of Cohesion DX8 to the Acquia product portfolio strengthens the proposition of both businesses and allows Cohesion the opportunity to scale faster.”

In May, Acquia also acquired Mautic, an open marketing automation and campaign management platform that enables Acquia customers to automate, personalize and measure the customer lifecycle.

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For Sale – Intel Xeon E3-1226v3 / Startech 8 bay e-SATA enclosure w/eSATA PCIe card and cable

Startech 8 bay e-SATA enclosure
8-Bay Removable Hard Drive Enclosure | HDD Enclosures | StarTech.com United Kingdom
Controller card
PCI Express SATA III Card – PCIe SATA 6Gbps | StarTech.com United Kingdom
Cable
3 ft Shielded External eSATA Cable M/M | eSATA Cables | StarTech.com United Kingdom
..boxed as new. Purchased Jan 2018, barely used while NAS was RMAd
£225 incl.

Intel Xeon E3-1226v3
Taken from my trusty Lenovo TS140, selling as I replaced with a 1246. Perfect working order, never stressed
£80incl.

Patriot Viper PC3-12800 1600MHz 8Gb kit (2x4Gb)
£SOLD.

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For Sale – ASUS GT 730 GPU

GT730-SL-1GD3-BRK | Graphics Cards | ASUS United Kingdom

20180703 235314
20180703 235321
20180703 235326

fully works with no issues, card only

outputs 4k 60hz via hdmi

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FBI fights business email compromise with global crackdown

The United States Department of Justice this week announced the arrests of 74 individuals alleged to have committed fraud by participating in business-email-compromise scams.

The arrests are the result of an international enforcement effort, coordinated by the FBI, known as Operation Wire Wire, which was designed to crack down on email-account-compromise schemes targeting individuals and businesses of all sizes.

Business email compromise (BEC) is a growing problem, accounting for the highest reported losses, according to the FBI’s “2017 Internet Crime Report.” Criminal organizations use social engineering to identify employees who are authorized to make financial transactions, and then send fraudulent emails from company executives or foreign suppliers requesting wire transfers of funds.

Some schemes are directed at individuals in human resources or other departments in an effort to collect personally identifiable information, such as employee tax records. Others target individual victims, especially those involved in real estate transactions and the elderly.

In January, according to the Department of Justice, the U.S. federal agencies worked with international law enforcement on Operation Wire Wire to find and prosecute alleged fraudsters. The six-month coordinated effort involved the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Department of the Treasury and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, and it resulted in 42 arrests in the United States, 29 in Nigeria and three in Canada, Mauritius and Poland. Law enforcement recovered $14 million in financial wire fraud during the operation, and they seized close to $2.4 million.

‘Nigerian princes’ turn to BEC

The techniques and tactics of Nigerian criminal organizations have become more sophisticated, according to Agari Data Inc. The email security company captured and analyzed the contents of 78 email accounts associated with 10 criminal organizations — nine in Nigeria — and reported increased BEC activities against North American companies and individuals between 2016 and 2018.

The research involved 59,692 unique messages in email communications originating from 2009 to 2017. According to the findings, business email compromise represented the largest attack vector for email fraud at 24%, even though many of these criminal groups migrated to BEC attacks, starting in 2016. Previously, these groups had focused predominantly on “romance” fraud schemes.

Business email compromise often overlaps or has similarities with cyberfraud schemes involving romance, lotteries, employment opportunities, vehicle sales and rental scams. In some cases, money mules “hired” using romance schemes or fraudulent employment opportunities may not be aware of the BEC scams. Mules receive the ill-gotten funds stateside and transfer the monies to difficult-to-trace, off-shore accounts set up by criminals.

Since January, up to $1 million in assets has been seized domestically, and 15 alleged money mules have been identified by FBI task forces and charged “for their role in defrauding victims.”

BEC schemes are hard to detect, because they do not rely on victims downloading malicious email attachments or clicking on fake URLs. Instead, this type of cyberfraud uses identity deception — 82%, according to Agari — email spoofing or corrupted email accounts, accessed via malware or credential theft. Researchers found 3.97% of intended targets who responded to the initial emails used in business email compromise became victims.

Hackers use ATM jackpotting technique to steal $1M in US

A group of hackers stole over $1 million through ATM jackpotting in the United States.

The hacking group, believed to be an international cybercrime gang, used a technique seen in other countries over the past few years to get ATMs to rapidly spit out cash on demand. Called “jackpotting” because the cash shoots out of the machine the way winnings do on a slot machine, the attack requires the hackers to have physical access to the ATM. Once they have physical access, the hackers can use malware or they can replace the hard drive with an infected one and take control over the system.

ATM jackpotting attacks have happened in other parts of the world — including Central America, Europe and Asia — for several years, but now the attacks have made their way to America, according to a warning sent out to financial organizations by the U.S. Secret Service.

The confidential Secret Service alert, which investigative cybersecurity journalist Brian Krebs reported on, said that ATMs running Windows XP were at the greatest risk of being jackpotted and the hackers were targeting ATMs located in pharmacies, big box retailers and drive-thrus. The Secret Service recommended that ATM operators upgrade to Windows 7 to minimize the risk.

According to Krebs, the Secret Service alert explained that once the hackers have physical access to an ATM, they use an endoscope — an instrument typically used in medicine — to locate where they need to plug a cord into the inside of the cash machine to sync their laptop with the ATM.

The attackers then use an advanced strain of malware called Ploutus.D, which was first reported to have been used in jackpotting attacks in 2013 in Mexico.

[embedded content]

How ATM jackpotting works

The hackers reportedly disguise themselves as ATM maintenance crews to gain access to the machines without raising suspicion. Once the malware has been installed on the compromised ATM it will appear to be out of order to potential users. Then, one attacker can go up to the machine while remote hackers trigger the malicious program, and the hacker who appears to be an ordinary ATM user receives the outpouring of cash. The Secret Service report said that in an average Ploutus.D attack, the money is continuously dispensed at a rate of 40 bills every 23 seconds until the machine is totally empty.

After they’ve emptied the ATM, the hackers disguised as the maintenance crew come back and remove their tools to return the ATM to normal operations — without any available cash.

In his blog post about the recent wave of ATM jackpotting attacks, Krebs noted that the hacking group has been targeting Diebold Nixdorf ATMs, which are vulnerable to the Ploutus.D malware. Specifically, Secret Service warned that the attacks have focused on the Opteva 500 and 700 series from Diebold.

Krebs also said the Secret Service had evidence that further attacks were being planned across the country.

Diebold issued a warning about the attacks and suggested that countermeasures to ATM jackpotting should include limiting physical access to the ATM, making sure the firmware for the machines are up to date with the latest security updates, and monitoring the physical activity of the machines. Without physical access, ATM jackpotting is not possible.

In other news

  • A fitness tracking app accidentally exposed the location of military bases around the world. Strava, an app that logs walking, running and other movements, published an interactive map with over 13 trillion GPS points from its users a few months ago. The map has since been used to confirm the location of military bases, which show extra activity along specific routes in otherwise remote areas. These are believed to be jogging routes and even patrol routes at military bases. An analyst at the Institute for United Conflict Analysts, Nathan Ruser, noticed the data last week and Twitter has since taken to posting now-confirmed locations of the military bases. The data exists because military personnel didn’t turn off their fitness trackers while on base, despite Strava’s customizable privacy settings.
  • Google Cloud has teamed up with enterprise mobility management company MobileIron to build a new cloud service. The companies announced that they will combine Google Cloud’s Orbitera commerce platform and MobileIron’s enterprise mobility management and app distribution platform. The enterprise applications and services portal is expected to be released later in 2018 and will mostly be built on top of the security assertion markup language standard. The service will enable resellers, enterprises and others to buy cloud services and distribute them to customers and employees. It will include customized service bundles, customized branding, unified billing, secure cloud access, and usage analytics, according to Google. “We hope this collaboration simplifies and streamlines enterprise application management for businesses, and helps them unlock additional value for their employees and customers,” the companies said in a blog post announcing the joint effort.
  • Researchers discovered that Oracle Micros point-of-sale (POS) systems have been breached. ERPScan researchers published details of the vulnerability, which affects its Micros POS terminals and enables an attacker to read any file and receive information without authentication from the devices. The vulnerability was discovered in September 2017 by Dmitry Chastuhin, security researcher at ERPScan, and was fixed and disclosed this month. “[The flaw is] a directory traversal vulnerability in Oracle MICROS EGateway Application Service,” ERPScan explains in its blog post. “In case an insider has access to the vulnerable URL, he or she can pilfer numerous files from the MICROS workstation including services logs and read files like SimphonyInstall.xml or Dbconfix.xml that contain usernames and encrypted passwords to connect to DB, get information about ServiceHost, etc.” This means the attacker can run a brute force login attack against the POS devices to gain full access. Micros is used on more than 330,000 cash registers across 180 countries.

For Sale – ASUS DSL-N55U

ASUS DSL-N55U – Wifi ADSL Router

DSL-N55U Annex A | Networking | ASUS United Kingdom

£25.00inc.

In perfect working order.

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For Sale – ASUS DSL-N55U

ASUS DSL-N55U – Wifi ADSL Router

DSL-N55U Annex A | Networking | ASUS United Kingdom

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Nuffield Health finds SD-WAN deployment worth the added cost

Nuffield Health, the United Kingdom’s largest nonprofit healthcare company, didn’t spend less on networking when it switched its 31 hospitals and 158 fitness centers and medical clinics to SD-WAN. In fact, the overall cost increased by 20%.

“It wasn’t a savings,” said Dan Morgan, the IT operations director at Nuffield, based in Epsom, U.K. “We were spending slightly more than we were spending before, but we’re getting far more for it.”

The return from the SD-WAN deployment is not measured in reducing current costs. Instead, the technology is about the future.

In 2015, Nuffield decided to embrace cloud-based software to eliminate one of two data centers over time. Applications chosen by the company included Microsoft’s Office 365, SharePoint, Skype for Business and Teams.

Other products included TrakCare, an electronic medical record system from InterSystems Corp., and GymManager, a system developed by Sharptec for running sports facilities. Nuffield operates more than two dozen gyms with medical centers that provide rehab for injuries, weight control and health assessments.

Dan Morgan, IT operations director, Nuffield HealthDan Morgan

Going online for software meant the single 30 Mbps MPLS link at each of Nuffield’s facilities was no longer adequate. Instead, the company wanted two 100 Mbps internet broadband links at each site — a more than sixfold increase in bandwidth.

“As soon as you start looking at that in an MPLS world, you’re then looking at double the cost, and probably triple the cost,” Morgan said.

Deploying SD-WAN

The network overhaul demanded new technology for routing traffic, so Nuffield chose Silver Peak’s SD-WAN. In general, the product creates a virtual overlay that abstracts the underlying private or public WAN connections, such as MPLS, broadband, fiber, wireless or Long Term Evolution. Network operators manage the traffic through the software console that comes with the system’s central controller.

Installing the SD-WAN appliance was easy enough for Nuffield to have one running on the LANs of each of the 189 sites within four months, Morgan said. Speed was essential because Nuffield wanted to switch facilities to broadband before its MPLS contracts expired.

The most significant problem was the installation of the optical fiber that would carry the broadband. If the cable wasn’t available at a facility, then Nuffield had to get approval from government regulators and landowners to have it installed. At the health facility in Cardiff, Wales, for example, Nuffield had to get permission from four farmers to dig up their fields to lay fiber to the center.

At another site, Nuffield lost the MPLS service before the broadband connection was up. So, a non-technical project manager stuffed the SD-WAN appliance and two 4G dongles in a knapsack and flew to the rural location.

Once connected to the LAN, the appliance re-established the internet connection after downloading the preset configurations from the controller. Nuffield’s LANs use mostly Cisco Catalyst switches.

“The site was up and running over a pair of 4G dongles and ran like that quite happily for a good couple of weeks until the new link was ready to get plugged in,” Morgan said.

Lessons learned from the SD-WAN deployment

In hindsight, Morgan would have preferred six more months with the MPLS links. That way, he could have set up each SD-WAN appliance with those connections and change to the new ones when they were ready.

Another gotcha for Morgan was failing to have a full understanding of how each device communicates with the network, especially hardware that hospitals might use for years. Examples include magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) equipment and computed tomography (CT) scanners used to diagnose tumors.

“You end up having to retrospectively fix it, rather than accounting for it in the migration piece,” Morgan said.

Now that the SD-WAN deployment is done, Nuffield is working on migrating all its hospitals and gym-based medical centers to the online TrakCare EMR system. Also, the nonprofit will gradually consolidate on-premises applications in one data center. Nuffield plans to finish both projects within four years.

Nuffield will run its business operations on the broadband connections. The SD-WAN appliances will also have a 1 Gbps link available for the multi-gigabit size files CT scanners, MRIs and X-ray machines create.

Nuffield will store and access those files through its private data center, which is a less expensive option than using a public cloud provider, such as Microsoft Azure, Morgan said.

“With cloud hosting platforms, such as Azure, you have to be careful of the data volumes that are going in and out to keep an eye on your costs,” Morgan said. “At the moment, things like Azure are still quite expensive to host that sort of environment.”

So, while SD-WAN didn’t cut Nuffield’s networking cost, it is providing a more substantial bang for the buck.

‘Aha, now I get it!’ Microsoft is building technology to put numbers in perspective – The AI Blog

When people in the United States ask Microsoft’s search engine Bing how big Syria is, they learn the country is 71,498 square miles and about equal to the size of Florida. When they ask Bing how many calories are in a serving of ice cream, they learn that a scoop contains 137 calories, which is equal to about 11 minutes of running.

These two-part answers supplied by Bing are early, real-world examples of a technology being developed inside Microsoft’s research labs to help us make sense of the jumble of numbers we increasingly encounter in the digital world.

“We want to reduce the number of times that people read a number and can’t make sense of it. And we want to do that by providing some context, or an analogy, or perspective, that puts it in more familiar terms usually related to their everyday experience,” said Jake Hofman, a senior researcher in Microsoft’s New York research lab.

The need for a new way to understand numbers stems from the overwhelming abundance of data now available to help us make decisions about everything from federal budgets to personal health and environmental conservation, noted Dan Goldstein, a principal researcher in Microsoft’s New York research lab.

“The solution is a relatively low-tech one. Using perspective sentences is very simple and they help a lot,” he said. “What we’re finding is creating them is a difficult challenge because it requires not only understanding the proper numbers to compare the numbers to, but also understanding what people are familiar with, what kinds of comparisons people like, what kinds of things people can easily imagine.”

On the road to AI

The examples on Bing today are only available for a few specific subjects and required human input to develop. Ultimately, the Microsoft researchers aim to build a service that automatically generates perspectives for any number and communicates them with the ease of a skilled storyteller or teacher. This service would be able to pass a test for general artificial intelligence posed in 1950 by the British computer theorist Alan Turing.

“You would be very sure you were talking to a machine if it says 248,572 square miles as opposed to roughly the size of Texas when you asked it how big France was,” said Goldstein. “To pass the Turing test, you have to talk like a human; someone who can explain something in a way that is personalized to the audience.”

The road to this generalized, automated technology that takes raw numbers from sources such as email, social media feeds and search results and puts them in a personalized context is filled with hurdles. To clear them requires a deep understanding of the nuance and complexity of what makes humans human.

Microsoft’s New York research lab, where Hofman and Goldstein are based, is well suited to clear this hurdle, noted David Pennock, a principal researcher and the lab’s assistant managing director. The lab brings together social scientists and computer scientists to study not just computers, but people and how people behave with computers.

“There’s an extra piece that is important for AI, which is taking the result of the complex algorithm that does all its magic and then actually putting it in a presentable form for people,” said Pennock. “If you want to run a data-driven company, yes you want all the great data; yes, you want to run all the right experiments; and yes, you want to make decisions based on your data. But ultimately, you need it in a form that is presentable to a person who in the end makes the decision.”

Numbers in the news

Hofman and Goldstein started down this road on October 30, 2012. The researchers remember the day because it fell the day after Superstorm Sandy slammed the East Coast. They fought snarled traffic to reach an off-site meeting where they had a brainstorming session on new research directions.

“We proposed the idea of trying to make numbers in the news make sense to the average person,” said Hofman. “Everyone nodded and said, ‘Yeah, that sounds like a good idea.’ We had no idea how good of an idea it was, or wasn’t, or how hard of a problem it was to solve.”

To begin, the researchers recruited people to participate in an online experiment designed to quantify the value of perspectives for the comprehension of unfamiliar numbers. Some participants generated perspective sentences for numbers taken from news articles and others took a series of randomized tests to determine if the perspectives improved recall, estimation and error detection.

For example, a news article noted that “Americans own almost 300 million firearms.” That fact alone might be difficult to estimate or believe if never seen before, and recall even if seen in the past. The researchers found comprehension of U.S. gun ownership improved with the perspective that “300 million firearms is about one firearm for every person in the United States.”

The finding that perspective sentences help people understand numbers in the news prompted the researchers to begin teasing apart why perspectives work. Does merely the repetition of numbers increase memory? Do perspectives add fodder for our brains to noodle over and associate with, leading to more stuff to pull on when it comes time for recall? Do perspectives stake mental flags?

What’s more, are some perspectives better than others? Take the area of Pakistan, for example, which is 307,373 square miles. What comparative rank or measure best helps people understand how big – how much land – 307,373 square miles is? Perhaps, how long it would take to drive across? Or how big it is compared to U.S. states? If comparing to states, which state? Is twice the size of California more helpful than five times larger than Georgia?

“How do you figure out which of those is better? How do you do that in a principled way?” said Chris Riederer, who interned with Hofman and Goldstein while pursuing his Ph.D. at Columbia University and co-authored a paper that describes this phase of the research. “Essentially, what we did is we ran a big survey.”

Study participants compared country sizes and populations to the sizes and populations of various U.S. states. The results show that familiar states combined with simple multipliers, even if less precise, are best. For example, people in the U.S. grasp the area of Pakistan more easily when expressed as roughly twice the size of California than the technically more accurate five times larger than Georgia.

These findings were used to generate the country-area perspectives live on Bing today. Ask the search engine, “How big is Pakistan?” and you’ll learn the square-mile fact along with the pre-computed comparison to California.

Bing and beyond

Bing’s question and answer team is working on additional perspectives to increase comprehension of everything from gas mileage to planet sizes. Bing’s food and drink team deployed perspectives that express calories in terms of minutes of running, protein and sodium in percent of the daily recommendation, grams of sugar in teaspoons of sugar and milligrams of caffeine in cups of coffee.

The decision on how to express each perspective – calories in minutes running versus walking, for example – involves brainstorming over email between the Bing and research teams as well as analysis of data from search logs and surveys, explained Christina Ntouniaoglou, a program manager for Bing’s food and drink team.

“I was thinking it is walking. Why would it be running? There are people who cannot really run. But the survey proved that people actually like the running part, so we went with that,” she said.

The next challenge, said Hofman, is to build a system that automatically creates perspectives so that people can more easily use all the data we have access to today to make informed decisions.

“Computers have lots of facts in lots of databases, but they don’t really know how to rank those facts as more or less useful, or comprehensible, to humans,” he said. “That is the last remaining hurdle – big hurdle – that we need to clear in this project.”

Hofman and Goldstein are applying the latest advances in machine learning, a branch of artificial intelligence, and data analysis to clear this hurdle. Their eyes are fixed on the goal of a generalized service that operates as a plug-in to browsers, email programs and text editors that automatically generates relevant, personalized perspectives for any numbers the users encounter or write.

“If we were infinitely wise and infinitely good at calculating, it wouldn’t really matter how numbers are expressed, it would all be the same to us. But the fact is, some things really cause people to go ‘Aha, now I get it,’” said Goldstein. “This is new territory; looking at how to communicate numbers in a way that gives people insight and memory and comprehension.”

The half decade Hofman has spent on the research project, he said, has already planted perspectives in his brain.

“I am always in the background thinking, ‘Am I presenting this in the most comprehensible way?’”

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John Roach writes about Microsoft research and innovation. Follow him on Twitter.