Posts filed under ‘Software Engineering’

2008 Web Search is still in 1979

On Thursday (04/24/2008 ) last week, I had the privilege of talking to Dr. Jim Martin’s Natural Language Processing (NLP) graduate class, at the University of Colorado at Boulder, about the work that we are  doing at Filtrbox and the role that current NLP students will play in the future of information technology.  This blog post is the basis of my message to the class.

As I have written before, the problem that we face today is how to harness the data that is available on the web so that we can apply meaningful interpretation to it using applications.  This problem is rooted in the assumption that the data that is stored on the web is “unstructured”.  Unlike the majority of the data processed by applications today which is stored in some form of a structure e.g. a relational database, the data on the web is not so, as its is perceived as discrete pieces of data scattered all over the web.

I told the class that part of what I am doing at Filtrbox is an attempt to prove that the data on the web is not as “unstructured” as we may think today.  Within that data, there is a lot of structure, relationship and general interconnectedness no matter how “discrete” we may think it is.  With effective mining of the data and good applications, we can apply interpretation to the data and produce meaningful information.  However, we are still far from applications that can apply effective interpretive meaning on this data.  The reason for this is that we have to address the problem of information retrieval (IR) first before we can get to the writing of applications. 

To recognize where we are today on the continuum of web data information retreival and applications; a look at the evolution of enterprise applications gives us a great analogy:

Enterprise applications are where they are today primarily because they have a structured data storage model (Relational Database or RDB) and a standard access model (Structured Query Language or SQL).  Before there were enterprise applications that we know today, there were only RDBs and SQL.  While RDB work dates back to the 1960s, the RDBs that the majority is familiar with today had their beginnings in the 1970s.  The first (or widely believed to be) commercially available implementation of RDB+SQL was Oracle, then known as Relational Software, in 1979. This provided the ability to query an RDB for data using SQL but no applications as we know them today.  Analogizing this with the web, this is where we are today. We can go on Google or our favorite RSS readers (RDB analogy) and query for web data using a weak REST API or search form (SQL analogy) but we have no applications comparative to what is in enterprise today to interpret that data.  So simply put, today we are where enterprise applications were in 1979.

My message to the class was that applications like Filtrbox are starting to barely scratch the surface with respect to the implementing of applications on top of web data.  That is because, although its 2008, we are still in 1979.  The stumbling block is the perception of the “unstructured” nature of web data. Today’s NLP students will play a large role tomorrow in identifying and establishing structure in the “unstructured” web data in order to move us beyond 1979.


April 28, 2008 at 12:51 am 1 comment

Filtrbox Pizzabox Bug-Bash

Last night, Filtrbox commandeered “The Bunker” at Techstars (thanks to David Cohen) for the first Filtrbox Pizzabox Bug-Bash.  We invited Boulder locals to come in and help us test Filtrbox as well as provide us feedback on the product thus far. The event was a success and I would like to thank all those who were in attendance.  The feedback that we received from testers was great.   Look out for more information about this event on the Filtrbox blog. We had an awesome evening of fun, pizza and beer; here are some pictures from last night:

 Filtrbox Pizzabox Bug-Bash (click to enlarge)  Filtrbox Pizzabox Bug-Bash (click to enlarge) Filtrbox Pizzabox Bug-Bash (click to enlarge) Filtrbox Pizzabox Bug-Bash (click to enlarge)

March 27, 2008 at 6:53 am 1 comment

NLP: Unstructured thinking for unstructured data

In my last blog post, I talked about how we have had to develop Natural Language Processing (NLP) algorithms in order to overcome the lack of standardization on the web.  At Filtrbox, the more we dig deeper into the web, exploring its inner depths for information, the more I find that we are having to use a NLP concept here or a half NLP concept there to facilitate the process of mining unstructured data. The application of NLP concepts is increasingly figuring into the majority of our algorithms.  I have begun to notice that my thought process as software architect, designer and developer is tending to exhibit influences of NLP and machine learning concepts much more than before. 

I think NLP fundamentals are essential for those who wish to undertake the challenge of building the next generation of web applications that process the unstructured data on the web.  Yes, there are efforts to build a structured web via initiatives such as the semantic web and the various APIs being proposed. I respect these efforts; however, I would not solely rely on these initiatives alone.  The proposed APIs provide access to structured data stored on various islands on the web.  For those users who do not have their data on those islands, their data is not accessible via the API.  The Semantic Web is the initiative that will bring us closest to structured data on the web.  However, as we are witnessing its painfully slow adoption, it looks like its going to be a while before we have some structure on the web. The challenge is what do we do now while we wait for these initiatives to mature. I think what we do today is, instead of waiting for content publishers to structure their content, we process content publishers’ content as is and we programmatically infer the structure of the content.  The application of NLP concepts are one way we can make the content structure inferences.  By applying NLP, this will take us a step closer to programmatic input, processing and storage of unstructured data.  We have traditionally thought in terms of structured data, programmed for structured data and stored structured data.  The challenge posed by the web today is an opportunity to break new ground for software engineers and start thinking, programming and storing unstructured data.

February 29, 2008 at 8:56 am 2 comments

A case for standardizing blog templates

Alex Isikold of AdaptiveBlue has published a great post on “How YOU can make the web more structured”.  A section of this post, “Standardizing Blog Templates Across Platforms”, really resonates with me.  Isikold is suggesting that blogging platforms such as WordPress and TypePad standardize their templates.  Why is this important? 

To help answer this question, here is the Web 2.0 school of thought that I subscribe to:  Let’s start off with an enterprise database analogy. The basic assumption is that blogs are nothing but a data store.  While information in a blog makes for an interesting read, it is about as interesting as reading data in a text column in a relational database.  While the data in a single text column may have a lot of meaning, its meaning and usefulnes is enhanced when the data is combined with other columns in the same table in database, or with other tables in the same database, or even with data in other databases. The wealth of data is hidden in its interconnections with other data. In order to harvest the wealth of data in databases, applications are built on top of the databases that reference and make relational semantic inferences between the data in the database(s).  Today, blogs are the database(s). What is lacking are the applications that harvest the wealth of information stored in the blogs.  These are the applications that the next wave of Web 2.0 companies (including myself) are working on. 

The pace of these next generation applications is being hindered by the lack of a consistent structure (standard) in blog data. What Isikold is bringing attention to is that unlike relational databases, which adhere to relational database management system standard (characterized by a simple TABLE/COLUMN/ROW+SQL structure that has been consistent over the years), blogs have no such standard. The structure of blogs is currently left up to the blogging platforms such a WordPress, Typepad etc. Blogging standards today are akin to having Oracle, SQL Server, MySQL each using a different standard for storing and retrieving information. Not only a different a standard for each of the databases, but a different standard for each version of each database.  Exacerbating the problem further, each of the different databases being customizable by anyone and anyone can change the standard to a standard of their liking. If these databases were is such a state, it would be very difficult to write any applications that leverage data from these databases. ODBC and JDBC standards would be very unreliable, if not useless.  Such is the state of the blogosphere today when one looks at it from a data interface perspective.  

As many of you know, I am currently devoted to work on the layer of applications that leverages the data in blogs and beyond in order make such data more useful to users.  The lack of standardization (as described above) makes it difficult to identify the content in blogs.  Content identification is important because an application needs to be able to identify the difference between actual blog post text and some other text on the blog so that analyses and inferences can be established appropriately.  I have been monitoring the different types of templates in an attempt to predict template patterns for the different blogging platforms (mainly WordPress, TypePad, Blogger, MovableType).  I came to the conclusion that pattern prediction is only successful to a certain point due to the following

1) the original templates from the blogging platform vendor consists of multiple major and minor versions that do not have a predictable consistency in the template content tagging and

2) there are modified/hand coded templates floating out there which are totally unreliable.

As a result of these observations, I have resorted to writing my own content identification algorithms that include a combination of template pattern predictor algorithms and NLP based semantic blog post text identification algorithms.  While this has served me well up to now, a blog template standard will be very beneficial not only to myself but many people who have not figured out how get past the problem.  

Isikold is suggesting that a standard be adopted with the goal of giving blog templates a consistent structure.  This means the adoption of a template standard that identifies the different types of data on the different parts of bogs post. Isikold is suggesting that on a blog post, the template should make it easy to identify the blog post text, the side bar, the name of the author, the data that blog post was published, the tags for the blog post content and the blog posts comments.  I believe an adoption of this simple template will go a long way in helping to bring the next wave of Web 2.0 applications to market faster.  I support a blog template standard.

February 4, 2008 at 9:06 pm Leave a comment

Correct RSS date format

If you see a date like “01/02/07” in an RSS feed, what do you do?  You write a blog post about it. 

The applications that I am working on are reliant on some calculations using RSS dates.  I have noticed that the RSS date specification is probably the most taken for granted part of the RSS spec.  It is taken for granted because many consumers of RSS program around the date inconsistencies so there is not much of an outcry.  However, when you see a date like 01/02/07, you have to stop and say something. 

To those developers generating RSS feeds, please take a look at the RSS date format specifications as per the RSS specification.  I will summarize it here: 

The RSS date must conform to the RFC-822 (refer to the BNF for “date-time”  in section 5) date time format.  Examples of this format are: 

Wed, 04 Feb 2008 08:00:00 EST

Wed, 04 Feb 2008 13:00:00 GMT

Wed, 04 Feb 2008 15:00:00 +0200 

Do not just execute a stringifying method on your date object before writing it to the RSS feed.  Set the date format to the above mentioned format first before writing it to the RSS feed. 

To validate whether your date is correct, you can use

February 4, 2008 at 7:19 pm 2 comments

Filtrbox is hiring

At Filtrbox, we are on a quest to create software that helps people “know what they don’t know”.  How do we go about doing that, you may ask.  Well, if you want to know how we do that, come and join us because WE ARE HIRING. If you meet the following requirements, you have an opportunity to be part of the best software development team in Boulder, Colorado:

*Solid Java skills
*Solid web application development skills
*Experience with Natural Language Processing concepts (a plus)
*Actionscript 2 or 3 (a plus)
*System administration skills, Linux, Apache, Tomcat, MySQL (a plus)

*Must be energetic, motivated and creative

Send your resume to jobs at filtrbox dotcom

January 25, 2008 at 5:52 pm Leave a comment

That software may be around for a very long time….write it well.

During the holidays I was surfing the web and discovered forums dedicated to software that I wrote almost a decade ago. It felt really good discovering that there are hordes of consultants out there being certified on architecture, designs and API that I conceived and developed (There is nothing like discovering that people’s passing of a certification hinges upon them knowing the meaning of a phrase or term that you coined).  

Feeling proud of myself and maybe even a little boastful, I decided to anonymously answer a question in one of the free forums since I would “obviously” be the final authority on such matters.  As soon as I posted the “obviously correct” answer to the question, there was a response from one veteran consultant who indicated that I did not know what I was talking about, I had it all wrong and he proceeded to teach me the correct usage of the part of the software under discussion. WHOA!!! Wait a minute!!! But, I created the software!!! You can’t tell me the “correct usage” of my own API. It turns out that after so many years of consulting on the software, many consultants have come up with very creative workarounds and ingenious uses of the software.  I tip my hat to them because they are now doing things with the software that I did not even imagine at the time that I designed and developed the software.  I was both proud and humbled after reading the response from the consultant.  

This experience reminded me of the importance of architecting, designing and developing enduring software because you never know how long your code will be out there making a difference in people’s lives.

January 13, 2008 at 6:49 am Leave a comment

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