Wednesday, 19 November 2014


It's been a big week for us: we're now homeowners. The last few days have revolved around cardboard boxes, being thoroughly terrified of the wobbly ladder to our attic, and trying to work out what to do first in an endless list of furniture to be bought and things to be painted. Making such a big step in life has the tendency to make one feel reflective, and as I sit here in our kitchen looking out the window at the trains trundling by, I'm thinking about a number of things.

The first, naturally, is about technology and the Internet. It wouldn't be my blog if it that wasn't the first item on the list. I've not had a connection for the previous few days, partly because we were waiting for an engineer to climb the pole to the junction box at our new place, and partly because Three has the worst mobile reception I've ever encountered in Brighton; in fact, I'm convinced that Three is an exercise in meditation, letting go and controlling my own urges, as when I get the twitch to check my emails or Twitter account I usually can't. But anyway, that's an aside. Each time I go without an Internet connection I really notice how much of my brain I've delegated elsewhere to be replaced via quick searches, emails or my bookmarks. Yesterday I considered where to buy paint from, yet I had no idea where the nearest supplier was, and when considering further and thinking about asking our neighbours, I realised I don't even know half of the road names around here, since I lazily delegate that to my GPS. And in my very own Big Yellow Taxi moment, it became apparent just how much the technology that we're building has had a profound effect on our lives, and how I really wouldn't want to be without it. I was considering cycling ever-bigger concentric circles on my bike, but it was raining, so that was put on the back-burner.

The second is perhaps more profound, and I wonder whether I can muster the eloquence to portray my thoughts here, but I'll give it a go. The house we're in now has wonderful natural light; there are windows in every room, and especially notable is a beautiful long window as you walk up the staircase, which lets in the light in the morning. The flat we lived in previously was quite the opposite; there was very little light from the outside world, and much like hibernating animals we lived in stasis for a number of years, putting everything aside for a moment in the future which has now passed. Given the light and mirrors I've seen myself from a number of different angles over the past few days, and I've changed; a bit older, a bit wiser, a bit busier. Technology is addictive, and it's a pleasure to spend my professional life helping build it. But away from the screen the seasons are changing, and whether we like it or not, so are we. Look around.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

You can build a lot in a day

On Saturday at Brandwatch HQ, we hosted our inaugural student event, which we called BestIn.class. When I was an undergraduate student, I was often intimidated by industry, especially when reading and hearing about interview horror stories; they gave me the same feeling I used to get worrying about exams. We thought it would be a good idea to open up the office to university students in the area (Sussex undergraduates were the biggest attendees) for a day of coding with a show and tell session at the end. The premise was that the next generation of programmers could come and see that we aren't so scary after all, and that much of the code that they are writing from day to day isn't all that different from what we're writing from day to day.

I was hesitant going into the event, as I was primarily concerned that people wouldn't turn up. I was wrong there. I was also concerned that 6 hours wasn't enough time for people to build anything cool. I was wrong there also. We gave the attendees a number of code samples ahead of time so that they could prepare. These ranged from code to connect to and parse the Twitter stream with Hosebird to a Spring Boot application that could login and access your friends on Facebook. However, we kept the datasets secret until the day to test everyone's creativity. We chose a dataset of 2500+ news articles on the day of the World Cup 2014 final, another with 5000 posts from the last week about ebola, and another with 5000 posts around the week of Robin Williams' death.

What our attendees came up with was extremely impressive:

  • An attempt to automatically classify tweet locations when no geo-coordinates are given (a problem we struggle with ourselves)
  • An implementation of a Caesar cypher for tweets
  • A map plot of the most talked about African countries in the ebola dataset
  • A map plot of where the ebola articles were posted from
  • A live Twitter stream with interactive cat GIFs driven by the emotion of the posts (a rules-based classifier)
  • A search engine for sentiment in different countries for World Cup players using Apache Lucene
  • A sentiment graph over time for the articles on the World Cup finals day
  • A 3D word mesh of the common words and their links in the posts around Robin Williams' death
Not only were the projects impressive; the enthusiasm for the event was extremely high, with attendees fighting to get everything finished before the presentations, and a real urge to show off what had been worked on. In short, I was extremely impressed, and I'm really looking forward to hosting another event like this in the future. Thanks folks!