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IBM Bloggers, Who are we? – Jeff Jonas

May 9, 2006

jeff jonas.JPG

A little while back, I asked the question, who would you like to see in the next bloggerview? Stefanie Sirc, one of my first ever bloggerview’s suggested today’s interviewee as one of the fascinating people she works with.

Jeff as you’ll find out is like many of the recent bloggerviews, one of the really smart guys who works for IBM, an inventor and someone who can fit two or three days worth of work into one. I found Jeff and his work to be very important and something I take a personal interest in, finding and dealing with bad guys. I’ve included a link to Jeff’s blog below so you can read more on how they use data to deal with things like cheaters in Vegas and how they can put the pieces together to link up events before 9/11.

For more on this, here’s a link to Jeff featured on The Discovery Channel talking about spotting relationships amongst thieves, an excellent discussion of Jeff’s work.
What is your job title (and what does that really mean as far as your job)?
I am the Chief Scientist for IBM Entity Analytic Solutions and an IBM Distinguished Engineer. What does this mean you ask? I tell my parents my job is to invent new left hand columns. Here’s what I mean by that…
When organizations want to acquire technology they often place the capabilities/requirements in the left hand column and then the competing products across the top columns. This matrix is then used to evaluate technologies. My goal is to invent capabilities the customer has never even conceived of. Thus when they hear about the innovation, they say “I must have that!” and so it becomes a new left hand column. And they start telling everyone else about it. The best news of all though, is IBM already has it!”

Some work experience/background that you want can tell the readers?
Back in the early 80’s I worked a lot with credit bureaus/collection agencies. These organizations often had “skip tracing” units with trained staff who would use public records (and other tricks!) to locate people who had ducked out on their debt – doing their best to hide. Learning a bit about this technique turned out to be extraordinarily useful when asked by the gaming industry how to keep the unwanted out and later when asked by the government how to detect corrupt employees within.

How do you describe what you do to people who don’t know you or your industry, to the layman?
I help people find a few bad guys … and work awful hard to do this in a way that does not cast such a wide net as to trample the privacy and civil liberties of the innocent. Catching bad guys while upholding our Fourth Amendment values turns out to be a rather tricky activity.

What are good things about your job, what keeps you going?
My job is my hobby. I am constantly trying to figure out how to get more work done and I try to structure my life to be as productive as possible. Of course, I also have to do this in a way as to be a good Dad — I am a full-time single parent of three kids (two still in the house). What is so gratifying is when I get a call that says something like “you should be a proud American today” –then “click” they hang up. This means one of my systems somewhere in government helped in some material way!

What are your hobbies?
I am a triathlete in my spare time. I do several Ironman distance races a year. And while I am not very fast, I always seem to achieve my first two objectives — not being last and beating at least ONE girl! Last year I did two Ironman races, one in Zurich, Switzerland and the other in Western Australia. Because I work so much, I don’t have much time to train – for example, I only swam twice last year (each race) … that’s right no swim training at all! Not only does that make me a slow swimmer, but by the time I get out of the water my arms are so tired I can hardly get my wetsuit off under my own strength! 🙂

What are things you’d like to change either at your job or IBM?
I have so many ideas in my head — inventions, new left-hand columns – that it would take hundreds of IBM engineers to keep up with me. So in the meantime, I have to find the best one or two inventions a year to champion, while the rest lay in wait. As an innovator, this makes me feel a bit under utilized.

Briefly describe what Relationship Recognition is.

Let’s take a retailer for example. When the purchasing agent turns out to be roommates with the vendor — that can be a big problem (conflict of interest) if not previous disclosed. But how would the retailer ever know this? Relationship Resolution detects this by making sense of the data the retailer already has in its arms – albeit trapped in separate database silos.

Does that make you feel like a superhero?
From time to time I’ll suffer a brief “delusion of grandeur” moment, and then shortly thereafter I’ll get utterly humbled. So I’ve basically learned to be very cautious about a sense of greatness. And whenever I think I am at the top of some game, I find another group of people significantly more elevated. For example, I started thinking I was a privacy advocate myself. This lasted less than a month, then I met David Sobel, the general counsel of EPIC. I heard him speak. He was so inspirational and deep. I immediately demoted myself to a student of privacy and realize that is the most I can hope to be.

Where do you see your work going in 5 years, 10 years?
I am really interested in the area of “perpetual analytics” whereby the “data finds the data” and “relevance finds the user”. This is required as we cannot expect users to ask every smart question every day. I see computers beginning to deliver extraordinary new levels of useful information in such areas as improving healthcare outcomes. The trick will be advancing technology so that organizations and governments can compete in ways that stave off the “surveillance nation” end-state. In fact, my latest innovation to become a commercial product is this ability to have computers associate more data for better conclusions while handling only anonymized data. Such a breakthrough, whereby information can be robustly analyzed while remaining in its cryptographic form, may result in a world where it becomes common place to anonymize one’s data before sharing it. This is a better privacy story than prior information sharing alternatives.

What do you wish you could do now that you can’t and why?
I often feel that the way I see the world and the immense opportunities for improvement are trapped in my head. What kills me is I find it hard to get these ideas out of my head and into the hands of others in such a manner that they get the really big picture I am seeing. That is one reason that I started a blog. My goal has become to speak less and write more.

What is your relationship with analysts:
I brief analysts from time to time. Although names and affiliations are a bit of a blur, Mark Beyer at Gartner and I really see eye to eye!

What do you need to tell analysts about EAS that you’d like them to know?

There is this interesting capability that almost every system lacks called Sequence Neutrality. If Sequence Neutrality is present, the order the data arrives does not change the end-state once all the data has arrived. So many processes are designed to assume that all required data to make the decision is present within the system at the decision making point. But what are the odds of that? Sometimes no better that 50/50! Could that mean half the analytic answers produced by some systems are incorrect? Possibly!

One of my first entries in my blog ( is on Sequence Neutrality. And we are the only ones talking about and delivering solutions in this direction. And it is going to be a game changer when folks realize why it is so critical not only to accuracy, but also scalability and sustainability. Without sequence neutrality data warehouses drift from truth. With sequence neutrality they don’t drift at all. This means no periodic database refreshes are required. That means an organization does not have the wrong answer until the next database reload is completed. This is a BIG thing in itself.

One Comment
  1. Scott Karosa permalink


    i am formally naming you one of the best critical thinkers i know. Glad you are on the right side.


    Scott Karosa

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