What 0-50 million users in 7 days can teach us about big data

In July of this year, Satya Nadella shared our broad vision for big data and analytics when he announced the Cortana Analytics Suite. Included in the suite is a collection of perceptual intelligence APIs, such as the face API. These APIs incorporate state of the art algorithms from Microsoft Research for facial detection and recognition, gender and age prediction, alignment and other application level features. In today’s media rich world, such APIs help developers build advanced capabilities, like perception, into their applications for fun or profit.

An example of such an application is How-Old.net. Originally created as a demo for my keynote at Microsoft’s //Build Conference what began as a fun, interactive, demo to show the power of real time analytics and machine learning turned out to be so much more. Powered by components of the Cortana Analytics Suite, How-Old.net went viral overnight as 50 million people uploaded half a billion images, over 7 days, to see how good our algorithms were at guessing their age.

In my keynote at Strata + Hadoop World, I will discuss some of the surprising learnings we had about people and systems when we launched How-Old.net.  For instance, we discovered that the algorithms behind How-Old.net had a few tips to share on how to look younger. You’ll have to watch the keynote for those insights.

The launch of How-Old.net also resulted in some great learnings for future big data application developers, which I will share in my talk:

  1. Build cloud-first. The web can turn a small data application into a big data one in a hurry. The cloud provides the elasticity you need to auto-scale to your traffic and data storage needs.  Developing in the cloud can be very agile because of the variety of supporting services you can leverage. It also has compelling economics.
  2. Watch the metrics in real-time. Live monitoring, real-time analytics and dashboards aren’t optional. They are necessary to know how, and what, your app is doing and how customers are responding to it. They are also pretty incredible to watch if your application takes off.
  3. Start with big data analytics in the cloud. Cloud-based fully managed services make it easy to set up big data analytics. For example, this Monday, we announced a new and expanded Azure Data Lake that makes big data processing and analytics simpler and more accessible.  Using cloud services such as this makes it easier to analyze your data in real time, using a variety of big data tools like Spark and Hadoop, so you can focus on what the data is telling you and where you should go.
  4. Test and learn. Experimenting is the new normal for app development. How-old.net was built mobile-first, cloud-first which let us rapidly iterate using controlled (or uncontrolled) experiments, with very little developer effort.

How-Old.net is a fun demonstration of the power behind Cortana Analytics Perceptual Intelligence capabilities. Any enterprise, startup or independent developer can leverage these APIs to perform vision, face, speech, text and sentiment analysis so they can customize responses, transform the data to drive appropriate interactions and interact with their customers in entirely new ways. For example we’ve just updated how-old.net with a new community feature that allows you to get age guesses not just from our algorithms, but also from other people who may be online on the site. It’s all anonymous and no pictures are saved. Try it out and let us know what you think.

We believe that analytics should be agile, simple and beautiful – and accessible to everyone. I even like to say that performing analytics should be as easy as following a simple cooking recipe. In support of that vision we are announcing a new Microsoft Ventures Accelerator program for up to 10-15 machine learning and data science startups. If you are interested in how Microsoft can help you get your big idea off the ground with mentorship, technology and access to expertise – without taking equity – visit our Accelerator blog.

The magic of the cloud, with collections of services like the Cortana Analytics Suite, is that developers go from hardware to software, software to services, and data to production intelligence with incredible speed and agility. Cortana Analytics Suite is just one the many ways we’re delivering innovations to power an Intelligent Cloud and helping our customers transform their business.

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