Top Tech News You Need to Know: Hortonworks, Airbnb and More

It’s been a long hot week, tech friends, and we know a lot of you cooled off yesterday with tequila in celebration of #NationalTequilaDay (in fact, over 20,000 of you did!) If the local bar kept you away from the latest tech and big data news (we wouldn’t blame you!), here’s a quick read to get you up to speed.

HP Invests $50 Million in Hortonworks

To the steadily growing list of big companies making strategic investments in the open source big data platform known as Hadoop, you can now add computing giant Hewlett-Packard.

Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP) will extend its strategic partnership to integrate engineering strategies with Hortonworks Inc., the startup that spun out of Yahoo in 2011.

The extension is supported by a $50 million equity investment by HP, which, as part of the partnership, uses Hortonworks Data Platform as the Hadoop component of its own big data platform, HP Haven. Martin Fink, HP’s executive vice president and CTO, will join the Hortonworks board of directors as part of the deal.

But the deal may not be as much about HP’s money as it is about its deep relationships with large companies struggling to get their big data problems under control. While Hortonworks and HP will jointly develop Hadoop to run on HP’s Haven big data platform, HP, as one of the world’s largest suppliers of hardware, software and services to large corporations, will throw its weight squarely behind Hortonworks, and among other things, provide service and support.

“The HP-Hortonworks collaboration is similar to the huge stake Intel took in Cloudera earlier this year.”

Hadoop is open source technology designed to make it easier to work with large collections of data in a distributed computing environment. Once a collection of data has been poured into a Hadoop cluster, companies can run analytics tools on it in order to glean useful insights. It’s a big part of the larger narrative around “big data” we hear so often these days. eBay and Twitter are two big users of Hadoop technology.

The HP-Hortonworks collaboration, though much smaller, is similar in some respects to the huge stake Intel took in Cloudera earlier this year. For its money, Intel gained control of about 18% of Cloudera, while Cloudera earned visibility into future Intel chip designs and a partner that could help sell into large enterprise accounts.

HP will have access to many of those same customers, but will be able to offer a combination of Hadoop plus Vertica software, hardware to run it all, and service and support.

Click here to read the blog from Hortonworks about Hewlett-Packard’s investment.

Airbnb Enters Stealth Data Mode

Airbnb overhauled its logo, its website, and its mobile app this week. But there’s something deeper going on with the sharing economy’s most popular travel site. 

Under the covers, Airbnb has quietly begun an ambitious effort to meticulously mine the treasure trove of data contained in the site’s customer reviews and host descriptions to create a smarter way of traveling. It turns outs Airbnb is more than a travel website — it’s a stealth big data company.

“For a long time now, Airbnb has been an awesome place to go if you know where you’re going and you know when you’re going,” says Mike Curtis, Airbnb’s vice president of engineering. “But we realized that we have all of this data that other people don’t have. We have travel patterns. We have the reviews. We have the descriptions of the listings. We know a lot about neighborhoods that we can infer from the text in there.”

“It turns outs Airbnb is more than a travel website — it’s a stealth big data company.”

To make use of all of that data, the company has formed an eight-person Discovery team. Their mission? To build language-processing software that mines Airbnb’s data and figures out what’s really happening out there in the travel world. 

In other words, Airbnb is building a kind of omniscient, machine-powered travel agent of the future.

Airbnb wants to get to the point where it can give very specific recommendations based on who you are, not just where you live. “A lot of what we’re doing is the foundational work for user-level personalization,” says Lu Cheng, an engineer on the Discovery team.

This means, in a few years, you may very well be using Airbnb to not only book your next vacation, but to figure out where the heck you want to go anyway.

Big Data Addresses a Big Rat Problem

This week big data set its sights on its more public ramifications, like managing traffic, picking up garbage and nabbing criminals.

And rounding up rats.

Chicago officials outlined their aspiration to provide data to people in ways that they can really use it, and using it not just to react, but to predict. They were among industry experts and entrepreneurs at an IoE symposium hosted by Cisco.

Brenna Berman, Chicago’s chief information officer and Department of Innovation and Technology commissioner, noted that the city recently won a $1 million foundation grant that it is using for analytics projects, including attacking its rat problem. Berman’s team identified 31 variables that can predict where rats will gather, allowing crews to move quickly from one emerging rodent hotspot to another, rather than waiting for complaints from residents.

“We can be proactive, and work faster, because the crews don’t have to look for the rats,” she said.

Berman said the system will help the city serve neighborhoods in which residents are less likely to make such nuisance complaints because they’re worried about more serious crime.

Big Data for Small Businesses

Brian Janezic, 27, was in the equipment room of one of the two Auto Wash Express self-service locations he owns in Tucson, going through his cleaning supplies and vending machine items to determine what to reorder, when it hit him. “We have machines that automatically size and wash a car, mix chemicals, activate pumps, turn on lights — and here I am still counting inventory by hand.”

A simple online search introduced him to FileMaker Pro, a software product well suited to small businesses. “Now we can pull up any of our sites and see what’s on hand,” he said, adding that the FileMaker software “creates a PDF of a purchase order for us to send to one of our local suppliers or an online supplier.”

Examining his own data, in fact, prompted Mr. Janezic to look beyond his family’s Auto Wash Express locations. After enhancing his FileMaker Pro inventory management system on a different platform, he created a spin-off enterprise called WashStat, which he now sells to other carwash owners. That, too, is business intelligence.

“You don’t need a degree. You don’t need a manual,” said Ramon Ray, co-creator and host of the annual Small Business Summit.

So what can we learn from Mr. Janezic, you ask? A wealth of information called big data is becoming increasingly available to small businesses. Such information was once available only to big corporations with vast computing power and deep information technology departments — and more recently to online start-up companies with data-mining capabilities.

In 2010, just 1.7% of small businesses were using business intelligence software, according to a survey of companies with fewer than 100 employees conducted by IDC, whose analysts provide information technology advice to businesses small and large. By last year, 9.2% had adopted such tools, citing easier-to-use products and lower prices as prime drivers of the increase.

“You don’t need a degree. You don’t need a manual,” said Ramon Ray, co-creator and host of the annual Small Business Summit, where entrepreneurs meet with technology and marketing experts.

“You can drag and drop spreadsheets, upload a file — even from your phone,” he said. “If you have fleets of vehicles, you run those vehicles better; you can staff better, because you know where your employees should be, and when. The new tools provide better customer insights, so you know better what to sell them or what not to sell them; you can see which of your products has the best profit margin. You don’t have to do things on gut check anymore.”

Data for Dinner?

When we think about a means of conceptualizing information, the boring and typical graphs and charts usually come to mind – pretty lackluster and rigid in their appearance. Designers – like Umbel – have improved this area by incorporating symbols, interactive components and alternative schemas to make the delivery of facts more captivating.

But Mortiz Stefaner, a data viz specialist, together with Susanne Jaschko, an author and curator, have taken data visualization to the next level with their initiative “data cuisine,” in which they explore ways to render facts and statistics through a more digestible means: their culinary chops.

At two sessions — one in Helsinki, one in Barcelona — the duo challenged participants to come up with dishes that reflected some sort of fact, stat or data point.

“Data viz and infographics are already a staple of our daily media diet. Maybe they can be part of our actual diet, too.”

In Barcelona, for example, a pair of cakes addressed the issue of national science funding. The first was made from a standard recipe; the second used 34% less sugar — the precise amount that science funding is being cut in Spain this year. In that case, the dish turned an abstract budget cut into something much more palpable — the drop in funding literally left a bad taste in your mouth.

“It was quite eye-opening to me to learn how much we can do with food to express information,” Stefaner says. “We have all kinds of sculptural 3D possibilities. We can work with taste — from the basic tastes of sweet, sour, salty, bitter, umami to complex combinations or hotness. There is texture — immensely important in cooking! Then we have all the cultural connotations of ingredients and dishes. We can work with cooking parameters, or the temperature of the dish itself, when served. And all the little decisions that go into plating and food presentation. The possibilities are endless.”

Data visualizations and infographics are already a staple of our daily media diet. Who knows, maybe they can be part of our actual diet, too.

Cheers, data people!