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Internet Power Tools


Trevor Maynard, James Orr and John Harnett


This article, in its natural habitat, is alive! The live links will give you much more detail and the concepts are better defined by experts than our attempts below.


Our comments grow out of our papers on “A Maths Toolkit for Actuaries” (parts 1 and 2) and apply to actuaries in all fields. We thank Michael Pomery for mentioning our work in The Actuary.


We’ve become used to the internet, and think of the explosion of use and content as being behind us, but it is still evolving; it is the next frontier in communication and knowledge-sharing. We describe some free (yes!) power tools which will help you make the most of an opportunity that faces not just business but almost all areas of human activity. This is not nerdy or geeky; everyone is talking about it.


Everyone’s talking about it


These tools have actually been available for a while; some communities have adopted them, others are looking at them. The software giant Microsoft has announced that it will be building them into its software, so we will all be using them in the future; why not get a head start? It is interesting to see several articles in Nature where academics are taking an interest (you'll need to be a subscriber for this one).


All actuaries are being urged to take CPD more seriously, now called Life Long Learning (a preferable description). These internet tools will sharpen your searches and give you a framework for learning. If we could get actuaries and academics to start blogging (see below) then we can all start coaching one another. As we describe the tools below, see the “Jargon Buster” box; we’ve avoided giving definitions in the text.



RSS and Aggregators



If you have some favourite websites you probably visit them occasionally to check for updates. Wouldn’t it be great if the updates came to you? Well they can; all you need is a small piece of software called an Aggregator.


An RSS “feed” is a description of a website that a computer can read. Aggregators work by taking a copy of the RSS feed from a website at a point in time; then at a later time comparing the new RSS feed with the old. If the two feeds are different then something has been added to the website; and the aggregator tells you: a piece of news!



RSS Aggregators are nothing less than your own personal newspaper; filled with the content you personally find interesting rather than information others tell you to look at. Note that you can add a blog (see below) to your aggregator too; you don’t just have to read “official” information.


You can run your Aggregator online (try Bloglines) or from your desktop (try Sharpreader or RSS Bandit) ; personally we have found these two approaches complement one another – why not have two, they are free.


The benefits to life long learning are immediately apparent; each day the Aggregator provides you with a reading list of many of the new developments in your chosen fields.



Blogs and Blog Search


If you put a log (a diary of events, thoughts, opinions) on the Web what would you call it? You might call it a Web-log for a while, but then you would get bored and shorten it to “blog”; that is what happened.


There are millions of blogs out there; but why should the views of so many “lay” people be of interest? Doesn’t this just contribute to the undergrowth which we are trying cut through? Not necessarily. Human beings have a great ability to filter information. Once someone has found a good webpage they often link to it on their blog; if someone has said something profound on their blog then others can link to it from theirs.


Google-search uses a page ranking algorithm. It is very democratic; it ranks sites by how many people have visited them (number of “hits”). If a web site has a lot of hits Google-search concludes that it must have something good to say and it includes it in your search. This works very well…sometimes.


Of course if the information is new, or little-known then standard Google-search will miss it. Standard Google-search is deaf to the views of the individual. Fortunately there are blog search engines (Google has one of these too!); these are time based, they answer the question “tell me what has been said on a subject “y” within the last “x” minutes” (you choose x and y). Provided someone has spotted the new information and added it to their blog you will hear about it too. This is networking without the canapés.


Try Technorati. Use Pingoat to tell these search engines when you have updated your blog - free advertising!



Tagging (aka social bookmarking)


You may have noticed that these new technologies are all about social interaction and sharing information. By sharing, the internet as a resource grows exponentially in its power. Tagging is another great example of this. Tagging is the 21st century way to file information.


Let’s reminisce about “filing”; this is the act of putting a physical object in a physical place, in a ring binder, on a shelf, in a filing cabinet, in a filing room. We were so used to this activity, we replicated it on our computers in Explorer. We have all lost a piece of information we tied to the twig of a long and winding branch (g:\here\where\ImNotSure\OhDearICantRemember\2005\draft\help). We can use search facilities to find our lost works; this doesn’t work so well in something as vast as the world wide web.


We don’t need to do this. The IT philosopher Clay Shirky notes “in the electronic world, there is no shelf”. It is only the physical object, a book, a letter, a report, that has to be in one place; the ideas do not. A book can have many ideas, can be about many things. So why should it be filed in just one place?


Tagging allows the author and, more powerfully, the reader to say “this web page is about x,y,z”. This is another example of power in numbers; the more people “tag” (a tag is the description of the content; the x,y or z) the better the categorisation of the web. For life long learning this will enable us to find information much more easily.


This is how tagging works. A (free) tagging service, such as del.ico.us, allows the reader to put their tags for a particular webpage in its database. In itself this is useful, in the future if you want to find an article you just have to remember one of the tags and it will list all the sites you have given that particular tag (rather than remembering the whole path to the file). However, if others have tagged the web page too (they usually have) then you can follow all their tags and find related articles. This is best illustrated by an example; the following link shows all the sites people have tagged “R” (the statistical software package); follow the link and see where it takes you (http://del.icio.us/tag/R )


You can even place a person’s tags in your RSS aggregator. If you find a guru then you see what they are reading. The opportunities for coaching are enormous.





You may recognise this scenario:


  • You are part of a working party producing a new guidance note.
  • The “master” document is owned by the chairman;
  • every so often you send in your comments by email and they have to type them in (choosing some, leaving out others).
  • The poor chairman is deluged periodically...
  • ... and you don’t feel like you own the document.


This is a mess; it is inefficient.


How about having a single document that you all edit and can see updates immediately? This has to be better initially, though we can see that towards publication a single editor is often called for to get a consistent style. The problem with this is that we all work for different organisations and don’t share a network.


Wikis are one solution. They are webpages that the readers can edit. They can be completely open or password protected, so only some readers can edit them, or even view them. Check out the PBwiki tour!


These are also a great way to work within a team within the same organisation. One of the authors has been working with them for the past few months and they have revolutionised the way the team works. We have been using one to help the ICA working party.


Try wikipedia(an online encyclopaedia written by the users) to see how powerful they are. This only started a few years ago and now has nearly a million English articles which rival the encyclopaedia Britannica for accuracy.


This article discusses the uses of wikis in business.


IT issues


This stuff is free, of course your time and effort isn't. You won’t be dependent on a huge budget but you will probably need the cooperation of your IT department. Use the internet to assist any proposal you may need to make. There are many precedents and increasing numbers of case studies for collaborative Web technologies out there. So you should be able to make a case to your IT department.



What next


We’re working on developing the ideas and tools identified in our 2005 GIRO paper in a working party that will be presenting its findings at the 2006 GIRO conference; our wiki is available for all to see at http://toolkit.pbwiki.com/ . We’re also looking at how we can help The Actuarial Profession with its knowledge and information management challenge.

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