This week, IBM announced its next group of IBM Fellows, seven of its employees who share, according to the press release, “a commitment to tackling the world’s biggest problems with ingenuity, invention and inspiration.” The designation is a big deal for IBM, and over the years only 238 staff members have been so honored.
One of the more interesting choices this time is Jeff Jonas, a 47-year old chief scientist with the company who blogs here. Jonas never graduated from college with any degree but is clearly one of the smarter people you’ll ever come across. He is also quite a character.
Unlike many of his fellow Fellows – who have resumes that you might have trouble parsing – Jonas has lived a very interesting life and worked on numerous problems that are easily understood by the rest of us.
Jonas came to IBM through a 2005 acquisition of Systems Research and Development, a company that he founded in 1985 to handle labor reporting, inventory management and other back-office systems consulting. One of his jobs was designing the casino security systems in Las Vegas, where he currently lives. He worked for the surveillance intelligence group of several casinos, and automated various manual processes, adding facial recognition software that was key to slowing down the MIT card counting group. “We built [another] system to immediately identify risk in real time so they could get these people out of the casino quickly.” This software is still offered by IBM as its InfoSphere Identity Insight event processing and identity tracking technology.
Jonas is one of these people that look at the world with very careful thinking, always searching for actionable patterns. For example, he helped use his casino risk-management system to track down lost family members after the Katrina flooding of New Orleans. He and his team integrated data across 15 web sites – these web sites were being used by people who said they were seeking family members with those seeking them. I was impressed by how he structured his algorithm so it wasn’t going to be used by bill collectors, for example.
He calls this perpetual analytics and sense-making to keep track of data changes and to help advise decision-makers in real time. “As information changes, you want to be able to reconsider earlier decisions. If you want to prevent really bad things from happening, you want to be able to monitor risks and trends while they are happening.” You want to monitor the motion of the data, as it were.
His current internal IBM project is called G2. The idea is to “make sense of new observations as they happen, fast enough to do something about it, while the transaction is still happening.” His work is looking at how to commingle diverse data and weave them together – especially when things are the same, such as people named Billy and William, who could be the same person. “If you can count things that are the same, you can analyze them better and understand how they are related. It is a bit of a breakthrough technology,” he told me in an interview today. “I took what I developed for the casinos and made it more generalized and easier to use.” He and IBM plan to offer G2 sometime soon for the paying business public.
He gives another example in his blog:
“If someone has three phone numbers – no big deal. On the other hand, if someone has five different dates of birth, that just doesn’t seem quite right does it? That would be confusing. Why is this important? Well, if you are looking to analytics to make important decisions, wouldn’t you want to know during the decision making process if there was related confusion … before [any] action is taken.”
So a car’s color can change over its lifetime, but its make and model remains the same. A person’s Social Security Number should remain the same. “The trick is being able to relate how each of these data points to other things.”
You can listen to a podcast interview that Jonas did back in March 2009 here with two other IBMers, where he talks about some of these concepts.