Moment of Inspiration

Have you ever struggled with a decision, one that could change your life forever? All of the options feels like an overwhelming fog, blocking out the light. I felt that way for what seemed to be an eternity. And then suddenly….

Light comes streaming in and the answer is as clear as a Rocky Mountain stream. Colors seem brighter, life is more vibrant. Effortless. Like joy riding on a sunny summer day.

A moment of inspiration. And mine came last December 15th. This was the first day of my two week retreat, staying at my father’s rental house across the street from where I grew up.

Here’s my journal entry from that breakthrough day.

December 15, 2014
Watson & Winston

Day one of my retreat. Talked with Anand today—very eye opening demonstration of the way technology is changing so rapidly. No longer need to standardize data, or co-locate data or even worry about segregation of data. He showed me how Watson works taking multiple points of data, bringing forth unique hypothesis with cognitive computing. Watson is a thinking computer which understands language, sentiment and meaning—learning over time the language and concepts that we use within United Ways. And Anand’s firm combines that capability with the data which exists in structured databases to make Watson even more powerful. I’m not sure I understand what this is, but WOW—

I’ve seen lots of technology demos during my tenure at Upic. What was so eye-opening to me was that this demo turned upside down all of my beliefs about how to harness the power of data. For the past decade, I’d been working with our member United Ways to limit data collection to certain key fields which could be adequately maintained and to use those fields in consistent ways over time. Data quality required control and limits and processes.

The promise of Watson was the platform’s ability to make sense of messy, unstructured data—like PDFs, search, and social networks like Twitter & LinkedIn. And if we could combine messy data with proprietary database information, we could unlock answers to questions that puzzle us and limit our effectiveness as change agents. The more messy data we had access to, the better the answer. And this is consistent with one of my core belief—namely, the best answers to the most challenging questions come from sythesizing multiple sources. With Watson, we finally have the ability to do this at a scale and at a pace unknown to date.

Sometimes to learn the biggest lessons, we have to unlearn what we’ve believed up to now. After struggling with traditional definitions of data mining and quality for 15 years with little substantive progress, I am more than willing to embrace the promise of cognitive computing. And when I saw how Watson learns and understands concepts via this video, I immediately saw an opportunity not to be missed.

A brilliant moment of inspiration. And in an instant, I knew that my life experience would be invaluable to introduce this technology to my community within United Way, the larger social sector and business leaders I’ve worked with up to now. Let’s ride!